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

Mapping Schools’ Adoption of Community Eligibility

February 27, 2015 at 9:00 am

These interactive maps show the extent to which eligible school districts and schools in each state have adopted community eligibility, which allows qualifying high-poverty schools to offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge.  Along with our new report, searchable database, and guide to promoting community eligibility, they’re designed to help parent organizations, teachers, and other stakeholders in low-income communities identify which schools and school districts have taken up the option and which others could benefit from it the next school year.

The first map shows the share of eligible school districts adopting the provision; the second map shows the share of eligible schools adopting it; and the third map shows the share of highest-poverty schools adopting it.  When you scroll over a state, detailed data appear. When you click on a state, the bar chart below the map displays that state’s implementation data compared to national data.

More than 14,000 high-poverty schools serving more than 6.6 million children adopted community eligibility this year.  But many eligible schools in poor communities haven’t yet adopted it, which means low-income students are missing out.  These resources can help school districts consider whether to adopt community eligibility for the 2015-2016 school year.

Could Your School District Streamline Its Breakfast and Lunch Programs?

February 25, 2015 at 4:14 pm

Community eligibility supports Congress’ longstanding goal of reducing paperwork for high-poverty schools by enabling them to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students without collecting and processing individual meal applications.  In its first year of nationwide implementation, more than 14,000 high-poverty schools serving more than 6.6 million children have adopted the option.  Our new report and searchable database help parent organizations, teachers, and other stakeholders in low-income communities identify which school districts have adopted community eligibility and which others could benefit from it in the next school year.

We’ve measured the share of eligible school districts that implemented community eligibility in at least one school, the share of eligible schools that adopted it, and the share of the highest-poverty schools (where community eligibility is most feasible financially for districts because their federal meal reimbursements are the largest) that adopted it.

Although community eligibility was widely implemented this year, participation among eligible schools varied widely by state (see map).  Many more high-poverty schools could benefit from streamlining their meal programs and freeing up resources for educational priorities.  More importantly, millions more low-income children would be better able to learn if they received breakfast and lunch without hassle or stigma.  This spring, school districts will have another opportunity to examine if community eligibility could benefit their schools and students.

Spreading the Word About How to Make Schools Hunger-Free

February 23, 2015 at 1:09 pm

This spring, high-poverty schools that haven’t yet adopted the Community Eligibility Provision — which allows them to serve breakfast and lunch free to all students — will have a new opportunity to elect it for next year.  Our new guide explains how key stakeholders like parent organizations, teachers, and others can promote the option among educators and school nutrition administrators.  Schools that learn about the benefits of community eligibility will be hard-pressed to pass up the opportunity to simplify their programs and better prepare their students to learn.

Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods face special challenges.  Their students often lack many of life’s basics, including nutritious meals.  By eliminating the need for these schools to collect and process individual meal applications, community eligibility ensures that unnecessary paperwork doesn’t get in the way of giving needy children two nutritious meals every school day.  Educators are among the option’s biggest proponents (see here and here) because they know that hungry children struggle to learn.

More than 6.6 million children in more than 14,000 schools benefit from community eligibility, which became available nationwide this school year.  But about half of eligible schools don’t use it, which means thousands of schools in poor communities and millions of low-income students are missing out.

States must publish by May 1 a list of districts and schools eligible to adopt community eligibility, but most schools and districts will know before then whether they’ll likely be eligible.  School districts have until June 30 to decide whether to implement it in some or all eligible schools.  Over the next few months, community leaders, child advocates, and policymakers can help spread the word about this powerful tool for high-poverty schools to ensure that their students are well fed and ready to learn.

WIC Works, Without Congress’ Meddling

February 11, 2015 at 9:51 am

A central tenet of the WIC program is that the foods it provides to millions of low-income mothers should reflect a rigorous, science-based review of nutritionally important foods that participants’ diets tend to lack.

In December, Congress took the unprecedented and irresponsible step of overriding that proven approach.  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) was reviewing whether to add white potatoes — which WIC didn’t offer because low-income women and young children already eat lots of them — to the foods that WIC participants can buy with their fruit and vegetable vouchers.  But rather than wait for the results, Congress (under heavy pressure from potato industry lobbyists) dictated that WIC offer white potatoes.

Congress also directed WIC to abide by IOM’s science-based recommendation once the IOM finished its work.  The IOM has now concluded, based on the latest dietary recommendations and data, that there’s no longer a reason to exclude white potatoes.  Potato consumption hasn’t waned, it noted; Americans still eat more white potatoes than any other vegetable.  But the federal government’s most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans raised the recommended consumption of starchy vegetables, and Americans generally don’t meet the new recommendation, though they come closer than for any other type of vegetable.

The Agriculture Department will undoubtedly follow this science-based recommendation and adopt other IOM recommendations when the IOM completes its comprehensive review of all WIC foods.  That’s as it should be.

While Congress’ mandate in this case turned out to be consistent with the IOM recommendation, lobbying pressure could prompt future congressional directives that conflict with science-based recommendations.  The lesson here is that we can trust the science-based process for selecting WIC foods to respond to changes in dietary patterns or nutrition recommendations.  Let’s hope Congress learned this lesson and won’t try to dictate WIC foods in the future.

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.