Strong Child Nutrition Today Equals a Healthy, Productive Tomorrow

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By Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba and John Cook        It is simply common sense that food is a basic necessity for human survival. Yet sometimes we have to bolster common sense with data in order to better educate people in power that critical changes are needed.

At Children’s HealthWatch, led by pediatricians and public health professionals, we collect data from families and young children to measure the impact of economic conditions and public policies on children’s health and development. Our research connects the dots for policymakers between low-income families’ everyday lives, children’s well-being and policy improvements needed at the state and national levels.

ScientisStephanie Ettinger de Cuba ts, John Cookadvocates and the government track whether people in America have consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Households that have limited or uncertain access to enough nutritious food for all household members due to economic constraints are “food insecure,” and we know from research that food insecurity has particularly harmful effects on children and youth.

Seventeen million U.S. households – almost 15 percent of the nation, or the combined population of Colorado, Minnesota and Virginia – struggled to put food on the table in 2008. The problem was worse for households with children, where more than one-fifth were food insecure. the rates were even higher in female-headed households with children, reaching 37 percent.

While 2009 data are not yet available, joblessness and cuts in family support programs have likely increased food insecurity even further. The consequences of such widespread hardship carry significant costs for children of all ages, and for families, society and the national economy. Our recent research found that the cumulative effects of multiple hardships on young children, including a lack of nutritious food, unstable housing and inadequate home heating and cooling, decrease their chances of being healthy, growing well and arriving at school ready to learn.

Problems beginning in children’s early years can follow them throughout childhood. Research shows that children in food-insecure families suffer in the following ways:

  • Low birth weight, affecting future adult height, IQ and educational attainment (birth)
  • Impaired brain architecture and cognitive development in early years (0-3 yrs)
  • Higher risk of hospitalizations (0-3 yrs)
  • Reduced school readiness in preschool years (0-5 yrs)
  • Problems with learning, academic performance and educational attainment during school years, including lower math and reading scores and increased likelihood of repeating a grade or needing special education (6-17 yrs)
  • Worse physical, mental and social development, growth and health, including increased risk for both acute and chronic health problems, throughout childhood (0-17 yrs)
  • Impaired psychosocial functioning, behavior and mental health during school years, including difficulty relating to peers, increased aggression, anxiety, depression and thoughts about suicide (6-17 yrs)
  • Reduced self-confidence, happiness and satisfaction during school years (6-17 yrs)

Fortunately, it is within our reach to make sure that all children have the food they need to be healthy. We know that programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the National School Breakfast, Lunch and Afterschool Meals Programs are good for children’s health, already reaching millions of children every day. And we know that that young children whose families receive SNAP benefits are 26 percent less likely to be food insecure than are eligible children whose families do not participate.

But critical program improvements are needed to reach more low-income families and assist them more effectively. Research has shown that even the maximum SNAP benefit can be inadequate when it comes to helping families afford a nutritious diet at minimal cost. In April 2009, Congress recognized this problem and passed a 13.6 percent increase in SNAP benefits under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Yet in a recent short-sighted decision, Congress voted to fund other programs by rescinding the SNAP benefit increases in the future. Restoring these cuts and continuing to improve SNAP benefits will be very important in the coming months.

Child nutrition programs are front and center this year as Congress is due to renew child nutrition legislation. The bill, reauthorized every five years, sets national policies and funding levels for programs, including WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and school meals. These programs support child health and learning from infancy through high school. Their reauthorization creates an opportunity for advocates to remind policy makers that nutritious foods, which cost more than processed foods, are potent medicine for improving our children’s health and readiness for school.

Tell policymakers to:

1. Support improved nutrition-quality requirements with increased reimbursements to cover the costs of healthier foods for all child nutrition programs.

2. Increase funding for program access expansions, allowing more children to benefit from programs like CACFP and school meals.

3. Streamline paperwork for all child nutrition programs to encourage participation.

4. Continue investment in raising the value of SNAP benefits to match the cost of healthy foods.

Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba is research and policy director at Children’s HealthWatch. John Cook is co-principal investigator.