How to Improve Participation in Federal Child Nutrition Programs

fruits and veggies

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. 

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Research has long demonstrated the links between participation in child nutrition programs—particularly school breakfast—and health.  The meals provided through these programs must meet federal nutrition standards and have been shown to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, milk, and key nutrients.

These nutrition programs are a major benefit to Latino families struggling to put food on the table.  The most recent Census data show that there were 13.6 million Latinos living in poverty in 2012, which included 5.9 million Latino children.  The child nutrition programs help these families ensure that their kids get healthy food before, during, and after school, as well as over the summer months.  Any child attending a school that provides school 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 get funding to provide free meals to all participating children.

The benefits of these programs are many, yet currently they only serve a fraction of the 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.  The School Breakfast Program reaches only half of those who receive school lunches.

There are things we can do to change this, however.  First, more after-school and summer programs need to participate in the nutrition programs.  Generally, programs located in areas where 50% or more of the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals can participate.  So can any school, local government agency, or private nonprofit that meets the eligibility requirements and can follow the program’s rules.

LatinoBoy_messyhairThe Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) has valuable information that organizations should use to start and maintain successful after-school and summer programs, including an implementation calendar for summer and an Afterschool Meals Guide.

Schools also need to start looking at ways to increase school breakfast participation.  One great way to start, according to FRAC, is to make breakfast a part of the school day.  While teachers take attendance, collect homework, and go through the regular morning routine, the kids can eat their nutritious breakfast.  Further, those schools with high percentages of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches can often offer free breakfast to all students.  Research suggests that this approach produces the biggest increase in breakfast participation, ensuring that more students start their day well-nourished and ready to learn.

If schools take these easy steps, they’ll be on their way to fostering healthier practices in kids.  Doing so will also build participation in the child nutrition programs, which supports both NCLR’s and the Affordable Care Act’s goals of improving health and other outcomes for Latino children and communities.  Visit the USDA and FRAC websites to learn more about the different federal food and nutrition programs available for children.

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.  A recent example of this work is a partnership with FRAC to promote school breakfast, after-school meals, 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. 

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