How We Can Improve Child Nutrition When Healthy Eating Isn’t Accessible
By Robert Murray, MD (AFHK Board Member) and Grace Perry, RD, LD (AFHK Program Manager)
Children are the products of their environment and experiences; like sponges, they absorb all that’s around them. They’re constantly picking up language, mannerisms, ideas and habits. The people in a child’s life — especially during their formative years — will have a lasting influence on them for years to come.
That’s why it’s critical for everyone from family members to teachers to coaches to faith leaders to understand the impact they have on a child’s diet and nutrition and the resources they have available to support children’s healthy eating habits from the start. Diet quality can affect a child’s growth. Not only can it change their physical development, but it impacts cognition, behavior, well-being and ability to deal with life’s challenges as kids grow older.
Despite the fact that there are an abundance of publicly and privately funded programs and resources with the goal of improving children’s healthy eating opportunities, experts agree that these resources don’t always stretch far enough or get to those who need them the most. Furthermore, an urgent need for these programs are often unforeseen for parents who may have sudden financial obstacles to overcome.
In order to help all children access the type of nutritious food they need, here are challenges and available resources that we can apply at home, in school, and in the community to ensure they become the products of a healthy, informed and supportive environment.
Almost half of all U.S. children — 41 percent of kids under 18 — live in low-income households. Additionally, 23.5 million people live in food deserts, or areas where it’s difficult to access affordable and healthy food. For families experiencing accessibility or affordability issues, it can be tough to navigate providing nutritious foods that also provide the necessary taste, value, and convenience. Not only are overly processed foods and fast foods typically cheaper and easier to prepare than healthy foods, they are also often the only options in the area. When nutritious alternatives are expensive and few and far between, the outcome is families relying on the unhealthy, quick-fix solutions around them.
While parents and guardians may not easily be able to bring new stores into their neighborhood, they can learn how to prepare healthy foods for their families on a limited budget. There are also valuable programs and resources for primary caregivers to increase their family’s access to healthy eating (though many are location-dependent):
- Action for Healthy Kids and Dole’s interactive, digital Healthy Eating Toolkit includes healthy recipes, recommendations for eating healthy on a budget, resources and tips to ensure children build lifelong healthy habits.
- Local resources and programs may exist in some areas, such as grocery store alternatives like mobile markets and food delivery services, school meal programs and community gardens or local food pantries with delivery options.
- Speak to a healthcare provider who may be able to help, not only with food resources, but also with housing, transportation, health, mental health and other issues that can suddenly arise.
Schools play a critical role in child nutrition and diet quality with some children consuming up to 50%of their daily calories at school. An estimated 22 million children rely on free or reduced-price lunch programs for one or more of their meals each weekday (including breakfast). However, up to 3 million children aren’t getting breakfast due to the timing in the morning and transportation logistics.
We’re failing to feed millions of children every day, and therefore hurting their chances of short-term success in the classroom and long-term opportunities in the future. That’s why schools need access to funding and programs that allow them to empower kids to focus on learning — not where their next meal is coming from.
Here are some effective ways schools can become healthy eating pillars in their community:
- Game On is our free online framework that’s designed to help staff, students and communities create healthier learning environments. It includes dozens of ways to help kids eat better, such as school gardens, cooking classes, farm-to-school programs and more.
- Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a community-wide opportunity to provide meals to all children in the district or neighborhood, irrespective of their financial status. Those areas with more than 40%free and reduced-price eligible may apply for CEP. Every school district should look for eligibility because it helps ensure full funding for lunch and helps establish school breakfast programs while removing the stigma for children of being low-income.
- No Kid Hungry’s Nutrition Hubs provide all federal child nutrition programs including school breakfast, lunch, after-school and summer meals. This program also teaches school administrators how to spend money efficiently and responsibly so that each child goes home with a full stomach.
In the community
A child’s community is more than the area in which they grow up — it encompasses the people they spend most of their time around. From their coaches to the families they carpool with, to faith leaders to local business leaders, each of these groups plays a vital role in a child’s development. But they, too, need guidance toward resources and information about how they can support healthy child development.
For example, when schools, gyms, after-school programs and libraries close for summer break, often children are left to fend for themselves. Many communities lack adequate summer programs to keep children active, learning and engaged when school is out. This can be because the programs cost too much operate or other resources are limited. So when children have limited access to community programs or no access at all, how can we ensure they stay healthy?
This is an area where companies can provide support to communities that are under resourced. Here are a few opportunities for businesses:
- Partnering with Action for Healthy Kids to support a local community results in demonstrated impact. For example, our partnership with Kellogg Company Fund provided school breakfast grants to 40 school districts and 175 schools for the 2017-2018 school year.
- Establish or sponsor meal programs if the area meets the CEP criteria. Libraries, parks and recreation areas, churches, food pantries and community centers can all apply to host these programs in their space.
- Investing in underserved communities by expanding business opportunities to communities where the investments make the biggest impact can change lives. See how entrepreneurs across the country are doing this in urban food deserts.
Healthy Eating Access for All
Together, we can help ensure that not only are healthy meals more accessible to children, but education and resources surrounding a high-quality diet are provided to families, schools and communities to enable kids to become thriving adults.
Other nutrition resources