Ensuring that Every Child has Access to School Meals

Latino boy eatingThrough the Child Nutrition and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Reauthorization Act, Congress has the opportunity to invest in the health and well-being of millions of America’s children and families, including Latinos. These programs should strengthen, not weaken, the critical child nutrition programs authorized under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. To achieve this, these programs must continue to promote opportunities for children to access healthy meals and snacks at school, in after-school programs, and during the summer months. These programs are critical for Latino children to lead healthy, productive lives.

Millions of children, including 4.7 million Latino children living in food insecure households, count on the child nutrition programs to act as a buffer against hunger throughout the year. The National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program hold particular importance for the Latino community, as seven million Latino children receive free and reduced-price school meals every day, accounting for one-third of all participants. It is critical that all children, especially those at risk of going hungry, have consistent access to healthy, nutritious food at school.

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The End of the School Year Doesn’t Mean the End of Good Nutrition

fruits-and-veggies_largeWith the school year coming to an end, working parents must think of alternative plans for their children during summer vacation. This can be a challenging time for low-income families who need to replace the social and academic stimulation that school provides, as well as the free or reduced-cost meals for which their children qualify.

A school-based summer camp offering a summer meal program may be a good option for some families. The federally funded Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) covers the cost of healthy meals to children and teens (younger than 18 years of age) in low-income areas, primarily during the summer months. The meals provided through this program meet federal nutrition standards that include fruits and vegetables, milk, and key nutrients.

Poor nutrition during the summer months may contribute to lower performance in school, make children more prone to illness, and contribute to other health issues.

Latina_ChildObesity_560_292SFSP can help families ensure that their children eat healthy food during June, July, and August. Any child attending a school that provides breakfast and lunch can participate at the full-price, reduced-price, or free levels, depending on income. After-school and summer programs in low-income areas can receive funding to provide free meals to all children attending the school.

The benefits of these programs are many, yet currently they only serve a fraction of children who need access to healthy meals. The programs that run during the summer months reach only one in eight low-income children who qualify, and the School Breakfast Program reaches only half of those who receive school lunches. We can do better than this. There are steps we can take to build participation and make sure more children benefit from these nutrition programs.

Child  in the gardenFirst, more after-school and summer programs need to participate in the nutrition programs.  Typically, participation requirements are broad: eligible programs include those located in areas where 50 percent or more of children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, and any school, local government agency, or private nonprofit that meets the eligibility requirements and can follow the program rules.

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) provides information and materials that can help organizations start and maintain successful summer programs. Other materials including application guidelines and forms can be found on the U.S. Department of Agriculture website.

NCLR works to improve nutrition in the Latino community by increasing access to federal food assistance programs, resources, and education that ensure families can meet at the dinner table for a healthy meal. Our work with FRAC promotes school breakfast, after-school, and summer meals to Latino communities throughout the United States. This partnership is supported by the ConAgra Foods Foundation and includes three other national partners: the Afterschool Alliance, the National Recreation and Park Association, and the National League of Cities.

Want Latino Students to Succeed? Help Them Start the Day Right

fruits-and-veggies_largeWith Mother’s Day around the corner, we would do well to remember a piece of advice that mothers have given their children for years: eating breakfast is the best way to start your day.

Teachers echo this sentiment, knowing firsthand how hard it is for children to pay attention when they are hungry. For some families, a rushed morning schedule means children don’t eat before they head to school. For others, a tight budget means there simply isn’t enough food for breakfast every day.

A study by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) examines participation in the School Breakfast Program, which provides free and reduced-cost morning meals to children from low-income and poor families. The study suggests that this program is underutilized, despite the fact that nine out of 10 schools offering free lunches also offer free breakfasts. For every 100 children enrolled in the School Lunch Program, only about 53 also receive a free breakfast.

An NCLR policy brief shows that Latinos make up a large share of children (more than one-third!) who are eligible for free or low-cost school meals but are not receiving them. Barriers include lack of language access or transportation, and concerns or confusion about application requirements. Given that school-based meals increase children’s energy and help them take in sufficient nutrients, it is of great concern that so many qualified Latino children who need free meals are missing out.

ACAdiabetesblog_pic1_resizedThe FRAC study highlights best practices that schools use to help more children start the day off right. Schools with the highest participation rates make breakfast easy and convenient: they provide classroom delivery for meals eaten during morning announcements, grab-and-go bagged meals to be eaten on the run, and a “second chance” breakfast service after the first period of class.

Even better are the schools that offer free breakfast to all students, although this is a benefit offered primarily by large schools with a majority low-income student body. Families at these schools do not have to worry about requirements or fill out paperwork, nor do their children need to arrive early in order to eat—breakfast is free and built into the school day for all students. Local news reports highlight the benefits of universal free breakfast service, including improved behavior and attention in the classroom.

We urge schools to follow these best practices and read FRAC’s study to learn how to improve participation, streamline the enrollment process, and offer free breakfasts to all students. It is imperative that school administrators, counselors, teachers, and anyone else who works with parents and children communicate in a culturally competent manner as they enroll more children in the School Breakfast Program. The application is available in Spanish, too.

NCLR considers the school breakfast and lunch programs crucial for Latino children, many of whom already face challenges in school. We must make use of every tool available to help Latino students succeed.

Stay on Track With A Plan for Healthy Eating

By Alejandra Gepp, Associate Director, Institute for Hispanic Health, NCLR

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Photo: Academy of Nutrition and Diatetics

This blog is part of NCLR’s Comprando rico y sano funded with the generous support of Walmart Foundation and on-going collaboration with General Mills.

It’s been more than two months since New Year’s Eve and we bet that more than a few people have already given up on their resolutions to eat more healthily in 2014.  But March is the perfect month to recommit to eating right and staying active. This National Nutrition Month, NCLR is challenging you to get back on track with your New Year’s resolution or start a new pact with yourself to eat more nutritious meals, so that you can live a happier and longer life.

Unfortunately, many Hispanics in the U.S. struggle with their weight. While about one-third of U.S. adults are classified as obese, that number is even higher for Hispanic adults, reaching almost 40 percent.  The numbers for Hispanic children aren’t any better.  Nearly 40 percent of Hispanic children ages 2 to 19 are also overweight or obese, compared to just over 30 percent of all children in this age group. And high rates of obesity have resulted in disproportionately high rates of other serious health conditions for Hispanics, such as heart disease and diabetes.

It’s time to take your health back into your hands—with a little help, of course. Here are a few ways to help you eat a nutritious meal and be active every day:

  • See if a community organization in your neighborhood participates in NCLR’s  Comprando Rico y Sano program. We know that eating healthy can sometimes be difficult if you are on a limited budget. This program teaches shoppers how to purchase the healthiest, highest quality foods without breaking the bank. It also emphasizes strategies that can help consumers easily identify healthy foods. With the 101 labels trying to sell customers reduced-fat, sugar-free, gluten-free and so forth, sometimes it’s easier just to know what is actually good for you.
  • Familiarize yourself with the USDA’s MiPlato icon, a resource to help people understand not only what they should be eating, but also how much to eat. Our nation isn’t exactly known for its small portion sizes. This icon, as well as the informational resources with it, helps shoppers figure how to create a balanced meal that includes the appropriate amounts of each food group.
  • Staying healthy isn’t all about eating right; it also takes some activity.  Check out First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign which offers parents, children, schools, elected officials and even chefs some ideas for how they can get their communities living more healthy, active lifestyles. Plan a meet-up in your town or city or just take your children out for a day at the park. Just get up, get out, and get moving!
  • Learn about federal child nutrition programs—the School Breakfast Program, the National School Lunch Program, the Summer Food Service Program, and afternoon snacks and meals provided through the Child and Adult Care Food Program—that can help children stay healthy. Application guidelines and forms can be found at the USDA website.

The path to getting healthy isn’t always easy, but it is always worth it.  All it takes to get started is a step in the right direction.  Recognize National Nutrition Month and make today the day you take that first step.

How to Improve Participation in Federal Child Nutrition Programs

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Getting more children to participate in federal child nutrition programs—the School Breakfast Program, the National School Lunch Program, the Summer Food Service Program, and afternoon snacks and meals provided through the Child and Adult Care Food Program—can help support our collective goal of encouraging healthier nutrition practices and physical activity among children.

With implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), there are new opportunities to meet these goals and improve health outcomes for children, particularly through the newly established Prevention and Public Health Fund.  The Fund is the nation’s first mandatory funding stream dedicated to improving our nation’s public health.  It is offering grants through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to support early child care and education obesity prevention programs.  Continue reading