How Federal Nutrition Programs Impact Latino Children and Families

There are 4.7 million Latino children living in families that struggle to consistently put food on the table. Latinos also face increased risk of developing a chronic disease like diabetes and heart disease. March marks National Nutrition Month, and it gives us an opportunity to highlight important federal efforts to address hunger, improve access to healthy and nutritious food, and increase the ability for America’s children and families to live healthier lives.

In particular, federal nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and child nutrition programs, like school meals, are especially critical for the health and well-being of the Latino community. To help you better understand these federal programs, we’ve put together an update on them, as well as the impact these new developments could have on the health of families and communities around the country.

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Five Tips for Packing Healthy School Lunches

Latina_ChildObesity_560_292It’s that time of year again—parents throughout the nation are once again thinking about what to put in their children’s school lunchboxes. It’s a balancing act to pack a lunch with healthy foods that our children will actually eat. We’re battling the influence of TV advertisements for processed foods and classmates whose lunches are not on the healthy foods spectrum. As parents, it can be a daily challenge to pack a lunch that makes everyone happy. Here is some advice from the health experts at NCLR.

  1. Include at least one serving of fruit or vegetable in every lunch. Try grapes, pears, melon, berries, apples, or pineapple. Fruits cut into slices, cubed, or with yogurt may be more appealing for children. Baby carrots, sliced celery, bell peppers, and cucumbers make excellent lunch sides. You can also sneak these vegetables and lettuce into sandwiches.
  2. Use whole grains and lean meats. Sandwiches are a popular and convenient choice for school lunches. They can provide children with at least 2–4 of the different food groups. When choosing bread, read the nutrition label to see if “whole grain” is the first ingredient listed or choose bread that is labeled “100% whole wheat”; white, “enriched,” and “refined” breads have little nutritional value. If the main flour listed on the label is “wheat” or “unbleached wheat flour,” the product is not whole grain. For protein, use lean luncheon meats, such as low-fat turkey breast, chicken breast, or ham. If you must add cheese, make sure it’s also low-fat. With peanut butter, opt for natural or a brand that has no additives, when possible.
  3. Follow the recommended portions for children. It can be confusing to figure out how much food your child is supposed to eat, especially when restaurants often present us with large portions that do not reflect dietary recommendations. The USDA is set to release their 2015 recommendations later this year. For now, check out these American Heart Association recommendations that promote heart health for different age groups.
  4. Be careful with added sugars and fat. Most of us, including children, consume more sugar than we should. An obvious tip is to limit cookies, snack cakes, doughnuts, brownies, and other sweet baked goods. Sweet baked goods are often packed with sugars, as well as saturated and trans fats. Remember that these are meant to be treats and consumed only in small portions, every once in a while—not every day. Sugar is also found in foods we often don’t think of as being “sugary,” such as juice. If you pack juice, make sure it’s 100 percent juice, which is not always the case with many of the popular juice drinks for children. Water is an even better choice. Milk is an excellent source of dairy, if you are mindful of recommended servings per day and choose low-fat or non-fat milk rather than whole milk, which has more fat and cholesterol.
  5. Include variety and start early. The key to providing children with good nutrition is to have well-rounded meals that include the various food groups. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, keep it colorful and strive to eat fruits and vegetables that represent a whole rainbow of benefits. Presentation matters, even for children, so get creative with designing fun and visually appealing meals and snacks. Remember to start early and introduce healthy foods as early as infancy.

Lastly, children often do as they see. As parents and adults, we are in the best position to model healthy habits. It’s never too late to improve our own health habits!

This blog post is part of Comprando rico y sano, a program supported by the Walmart Foundation and General Mills, Inc.


Happy National Farmers Market Week!

Summer is prime time for fresh fruit and vegetables and nowhere is that more apparent than at your neighborhood farmers market, where you can find something delicious to eat in every color of the rainbow. Find a farmers market near you in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farmers Markets Directory.

IMG_1509Visiting a farmers market is a great way to make healthy food choices and support local farmers. The number of farmers markets that accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits keeps growing. Some farmers markets even participate in the Double Up program, which doubles the value of SNAP benefits spent, making it a great way to stretch your dollars. If you aren’t sure if you qualify for SNAP benefits, the USDA’s website has information about eligibility and enrollment. You can also take a look at NCLR’s list of community organizations that can help you with SNAP.

IMG_1632 (1)We are proud of the work of El Centro, our community partner in Kansas City, Kansas, which is promoting the fresh, seasonal foods available at farmers markets to the Latino community. An NCLR Affiliate, El Centro works closely with us on the Comprando Rico y Sano health program and provides tours of farmers markets to share insights on nutrition and help people learn how to eat healthily on a limited budget. These tours are part of the $5 dollar grocery tour challenge in which program participants are asked to purchase the ingredients for a healthy meal for $5 to feed a family of four. Enjoy the beautiful photos from El Centro’s tour of a farmers market!

This blog post is part of Comprando Rico y Sano, a program supported by the Walmart Foundation and General Mills, Inc.

How We Can Encourage Kids to Make Healthy Food Choices

Last fall at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, in the heart of Arlington County, Virginia, students rallied around their beloved garden when it was threatened by potential new construction that would have paved over the small plot of land on which they grow vegetables for the Arlington Food Assistance Center. Arlington magazine called it “a little garden with big impact” and chronicled the impression this garden has made on the students, one-third of whom are Hispanic. They had never grown vegetables before and had a limited palate when it came to eating them.

Children are known for turning up their noses at vegetables, yet eating nutrient-rich, high-fiber produce is critical to maintaining good health, keeping up energy levels, and preventing childhood obesity, which is reaching record numbers in the U.S. More than 38 percent of Latinos between the ages of two and 19 are overweight or obese, leading to increased risks for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and breathing problems.

The momentum behind prioritizing childhood nutrition is growing. Research shows how important good nutrition is to children’s health and their ability to do well in school. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act seeks to improve nutrition for millions of children. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued new nutrition standards that boost the amount of fruit and vegetables in its Child Nutrition Programs.

CCSS_boys_303x197NCLR joins with the USDA and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) to urge more families to participate in federal child nutrition programs that provide healthy meals in school to children from low-income families. Many Latino kids who are eligible for these important programs do not participate in them because their parents may not know about them or do not know how to enroll.

USDA offers information and an application form in many languages, including Spanish. Eligible children can obtain, at no cost, breakfast, an afternoon meal, and snacks in school every day, in addition to lunch. FRAC has more information available in English and Spanish.

Thanks to the new USDA nutrition standards, students may be offered smoothies made with yogurt and fresh or frozen fruit. They may see salad bars in schools and even a baked potato bar or side salad options. Protein from meat, beans, and dairy is also an important part of school meals, but it takes a back seat to produce. Breakfast and after-school meals and snacks are just as nutritious as school lunches, featuring whole grains, fresh produce, and foods low in sodium and sugar. The afternoon snacks and meals provided through the USDA have been shown to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, milk, and key nutrients.

LatinoBoy_messyhairHow can we encourage children to make healthy choices whether they are at home, at school, or in an out-of-school program? Here are some ideas for parents and other caregivers:

  • Serve fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen, or canned) as options instead of cake, cookies, candy and chips.
  • Offer water as the preferred drink option during snack times instead of juices, punch boxes, or soda.
  • Reinforce messages about good health by ensuring children get daily exercise that includes age-appropriate fitness activities.
  • Demonstrate strong social support for healthy behaviors.

The student gardeners at Thomas Jefferson Middle School have spoken passionately about keeping their treasured garden now that they have discovered the joys of green beans and okra. It doesn’t take growing vegetables to become committed to healthy eating, though. With high nutrition standards in our school meals programs, students nationwide can become fans of green leafy veggies, fruit smoothies, and other delicious, wholesome, and nutritious foods!

This blog post was made possible with a grant from ConAgra Foundation through FRAC.

Summer Food Programs Help Children Stay Healthy and Active

Frac_Graphic14-2-01 (2)There are some foods that automatically bring summer to mind: sweet corn on the cob, grinning slices of watermelon, fat blueberries. Some children, though, do not anticipate the delicious produce that summertime brings; instead, they worry about having enough food to eat once the school year ends and the cafeteria that provides them with meals is closed for more than two months.

That’s where the Summer Nutrition Programs come in. A safety net for struggling families, the programs provide millions of low-income children with the meals they need to stay healthy and grow…and enjoy the summer. Last year, we saw the biggest boost in a decade in the number of low-income students who received meals through the summer meal programs. A new report released by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) finds that summer meal participation nationally reached nearly three million students on an average day in July of 2013, up 161,000 children or 5.7% from 2012.

This week marks USDA’s Summer Food Awareness Week, which aims to raise the visibility of the programs nationwide, and is part of the USDA “Summer Food Rocks” campaign that features an online site locator and search tool. The National Hunger Hotline helps connect families to local resources that provide food for children. That number is 1-866-3HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) and the number for information in Spanish is 1-877-8HAMBRE (1-877-842-6273).

We must all work together to make sure that families know about the Summer Nutrition Programs and where their children can go for summer meals. Providing adequate nutrition during the summer, along with structured activities often held in conjunction with the meals, helps prevent learning loss and allows students to stay healthy and active so they return to school in the fall ready to learn.

Everyone has a role to play:

  •  Elected Officials. When you’re out in the community, speak up about this program and include information on your website and in newsletters. Stop by a summer meal site and have lunch with some of your youngest constituents. Even better—work with partners to increase the number of sites where children can go for summer meals.
  • Schools. Sponsor a summer meal site! By opening your school to the community for the summer meal programs, you can help ensure that there are enough sites in places with plenty of kids. Also, let parents at your school know about the Summer Nutrition Programs and where they can find sites nearby that will provide food for their children.
  • Parks. Everyone enjoys summer in the park! Parks and community centers are ideal summer meal sites because they have outdoor space for physical activities and a variety of enrichment programs. Local parks departments can become sponsors of the programs.

No child should spend the summer hungry. Check out the summer food programs at the USDA website and see what you can do to help connect children to the meals they need!