by David Thomsen, Policy Analyst, Health Policy Project, NCLR
Today, 40% of Latino children (seven million) are overweight or obese compared to 28% of non-Hispanic White children. September marks National Childhood Obesity Month and an opportunity for us to focus attention on the issue, which is threatening the quality of life for a generation of American children. Through various policy and advocacy efforts, we are working to ensure that all kids have the chance to lead a healthy life, no matter who they are, where they live, or how much their family earns.
When it comes to Latino children, access to healthy food is especially critical, as 24% are at risk of going hungry. So it’s timely that federal nutrition programs are up for reauthorization this year: it provides Congress with an opportunity to maintain the gains these critical programs have made to improve the health and well-being of America’s children.
Increasing Healthy Food Access for Latino Children at School
In addition to the various nutrition programs up for review, there are components of the current law that can help alleviate hunger today.
One key example is Community Eligibility. Schools nationwide, in which 40% of students automatically qualify for free lunch, can provide free school breakfast and lunch to all of their students. This is critical for Latino children, as they account for nearly one-third of those eligible for free and reduced-price school meals who are currently not participating. There are several reasons for these gaps, including issues related to the application process, language access difficulties, and the stigma of receiving a free meal.
Through Community Eligibility, schools can address each of these barriers. Studies show that adoption of Community Eligibility increases participation in the National School Lunch Program by 13% and participation in the School Breakfast Program by 25%. By taking advantage of an existing opportunity, schools can choose to provide two free school meals each day to those children most at risk of going hungry.
Increasing Healthier Options and Shaping a Healthier School Environment
Schools are such critical environments for a child’s development and well-being, especially for children experiencing issues related to hunger. These children consume up to 40% more of their daily calories at school compared to other children. Unfortunately, schools with a majority of Latino children may not provide the same healthy, nutritious options as other schools.
The good news is that existing local school wellness policies can provide parents and guardians with a platform to advocate for more nutritious food options. Strong nutrition standards for all food and drinks served in school can help reduce risk of obesity and overweight among Latino children. However, in order for these policies to work, schools must communicate their own wellness policies in a way that is culturally and linguistically meaningful for everyone. By ensuring that everyone has a seat at the table, we can ensure that food and drinks served to Latino children have the same nutritional value as those served to other kids.
Using All of Our Tools
National Childhood Obesity Month provides an opportunity for all of us to look at ways we can reduce disparities in hunger and obesity and invest in the health of all of America’s children, including Latino children. At NCLR, we will continue to use the various tools at our disposal to ensure that this generation of children does not become the first not to outlive their parents.