The Center's work on 'Child Nutrition and WIC' Issues


Potato Mandate Overrides WIC’s Science-Based Policy

December 15, 2014 at 12:50 pm

In requiring the WIC nutrition program to add white potatoes to the foods it provides, Congress last week pandered to industry lobbyists rather than prioritizing the nutritional needs of low-income women and very young children.

Study after study shows that WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) improves birth outcomes and participants’ diets.  One reason is that it provides a “prescription food package” of a limited number of nutritionally important foods that participants’ diets tend to lack.  WIC doesn’t offer white potatoes because low-income women and young children already eat plenty of them.

With the addition of white potatoes to the food package, many participants will consume inadequate amounts of certain other important foods — because every WIC dollar spent on white potatoes is one dollar less for other fruits and vegetables.

The selection of foods to include in the WIC food package has always followed a rigorous, science-based process.  The current foods reflect a review that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) conducted about a decade ago.  IOM is doing a new review to modify the WIC food package to reflect the latest scientific findings.

Yet Congress didn’t wait for the results.  Instead, at the behest of the potato industry, the 2015 funding bill about to become law dictates that WIC begin offering white potatoes. This is the first time in WIC’s 40-year history that Congress has overridden the science-based process and mandated the addition of a particular food.

Ultimately, WIC should return to its sound science base.  The new potato mandate expires if the next scientific review recommends removing white potatoes from the WIC food list.

But Congress’ decision, at the behest of special interests, to substitute its judgment for that of nutrition scientists and maternal and child health experts sets an unwise and dangerous precedent.  Lobbyists for other food industries may now try to prod Congress to insist that WIC offer their foods as well, regardless of the foods’ nutritional value.  That could jeopardize WIC’s widely heralded success at improving participants’ nutrition and health.

High-Poverty Schools Using New Tool to Streamline Meal Programs

December 9, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Half of the high-poverty schools eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision, which became available nationally this year, adopted it to streamline their meal programs and free up resources for other education priorities, the Agriculture Department (USDA) announced today.

For decades, USDA has offered options to allow high-poverty schools to serve meals to all students at no charge.  Community eligibility, which has phased in over the last four years, further simplifies the meal programs by eliminating the need for schools to process applications or track individual students’ eligibility.

Nearly 14,000 schools adopted community eligibility this year to better serve their students and impoverished communities, and USDA found that more than 6.4 million low-income students attend these high-poverty schools.

Community eligibility is designed to be easy for various types of low-income school districts to implement.  Districts that have adopted it include urban areas like California’s Fresno Unified School District, where 88 percent of students used to qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and rural areas like Kentucky’s Harlan County Public Schools, which serve the families of many laid-off miners.  Harlan County adopted community eligibility when it first became available in Kentucky four years ago, and its test scores have improved from the 14th percentile in the state to the 55th percentile — evidence that feeding hungry children can contribute to an improved learning environment.

Educators at eligible school districts that haven’t adopted community eligibility can learn more about it from their peers and adopt it for the rest of the school year, or for next year, so that the low-income children they serve get the healthy meals they need to grow, learn, and thrive.

Shielding Homeless Children From Hunger

December 1, 2014 at 1:08 pm

More than 1.2 million children attending public school lack a home of their own, my colleague Douglas Rice recently noted.  They also are at greater risk of hunger.  The school meal programs, by providing a healthy breakfast and lunch at no charge, can help meet the nutritional needs of homeless children — as well as millions of other vulnerable low-income children who can’t count on getting enough to eat.

Two program features make it easier for children whose families are going through especially hard times to obtain school meals.

  • Automatic enrollment for homeless children. Regardless of where they attend school, children who are homeless automatically qualify for free school meals.  Their families don’t have to complete an application; once an appropriate school official identifies a child as homeless, the child can be approved for free school meals.  Moreover, starting this school year, eligibility begins as soon as the official notifies the school nutrition program, so children don’t go hungry or have to pay for school meals if school nutrition staff can’t immediately complete the enrollment process.
  • Community eligibility. Schools in poor neighborhoods, where unstable housing can be widespread, can eliminate applications altogether and serve meals at no charge to all students under the Community Eligibility ProvisionThousands of high-poverty schools use this option to serve meals without paperwork or stigma.

Let’s make sure that schools fully utilize these tools to ensure that homeless children get two healthy meals each school day.

Data Desire Needn’t Be Barrier to Kids’ Meals

October 14, 2014 at 1:41 pm

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is now available nationwide, yet some districts are hesitant to implement it for fear of losing data from school meal applications.  But to get the data, we need not sacrifice school meals for kids.

Across the country, teachers and school nutrition administrators have praised CEP, which allows high-poverty schools to feed all students breakfast and lunch at no charge, for streamlining the school meal programs.  One of its key benefits is that participating schools don’t collect meal applications or make individual eligibility determinations, removing an administrative burden on school districts.  Instead, whole schools qualify to implement CEP based on the share of their students who are automatically approved for school meals because their families are enrolled in an anti-poverty program like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) or because they are at risk of hunger due to being homeless or in foster care.

While eliminating meal applications simplifies school meal programs, school districts have long used the income data from applications to gauge a school’s or family’s poverty level to target education funding or other benefits to the most needy.  As a result, it’s critical that CEP not disadvantage high-poverty schools or low-income children with regard to education funding or services.  It is equally important that an interest in data from school meal applications not stand in the way of making it easier for low-income children to receive the nutritious meals they need at school.

School districts and states that need a data source to replace the meal applications can use one of many available alternatives.  The U.S. Department of Education has issued detailed and flexible guidance on how CEP schools can fully participate in Title I, the federal education funding stream for disadvantaged students.  The guidance offers three main options for alternative data that school districts can use when implementing CEP.  The states that adopted CEP over the past few years have praised the flexible options.

States have taken different approaches with regard to their own education funding and other benefits that states and school districts allocate based on meal application data.  Louisiana and Texas, for example, are relying on the data that remains available through the school meal programs (Louisiana combines it with data from other programs).  States like Kentucky and Michigan have school districts collect individual income information outside the meal programs, which makes sense when the data are needed for other purposes.  California requires school districts to collect individual income data, but they can then use the data for four years.

Changing data sources does require administrative adjustments and may result in modest shifts in funding allocations.  But we hope that schools’ desire for data about which children are struggling with poverty and food insecurity won’t stand in the way of alleviating those hardships.

VA Governor Lauds Community Eligibility

September 29, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has good things to say about the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows high-poverty schools to provide breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge.  Speaking recently about how to improve education, he said in part:

It will surprise no one here to learn that studies show poverty is the number one predictor that a student will face educational challenges. . . .  Nor will it surprise anyone that the number of students here in Petersburg impacted by the local economy is high. . . .  This doesn’t excuse failure – in fact it makes it all the more important that we help these children succeed. . . .

[Local] educational leaders are ensuring that students get the nutritional support they need through the Community Eligibility Provision.  This important program allows school divisions to offer free breakfast and lunch to every student if the division meets certain criteria. Richmond and Petersburg have implemented this program division wide, and Norfolk has opened the program to its eight eligible schools.

[School nutrition] programs work and we need to ensure that every single Virginia school division is taking maximum advantage of federal and state resources to get students the nutrition they need to fulfill their potential. . . .

I want to stress the importance of running these programs in a way that eliminates the stigma about free and reduced [price] meals. There should be no special lines or unique treatment for these students, so that they can get the nutrition they need without embarrassment.

The option became available to high-poverty schools nationwide this year for the first time, and preliminary data show that 86 Virginia schools have adopted it, reaching almost 43,000 students.  Officials in other states have described the difference that it’s making in terms of student attendance and academic performance.

Educators and policymakers have long recognized that hungry students are not well-positioned to learn.   CEP is a proven tool to ensure that all students at high-poverty schools have two nutritious meals daily, which helps them succeed in the classroom.

School districts interested in adopting community eligibility for the current school year can reach out to their state nutrition director for further information.