The pandemic has threatened the food and nutrition of Americans with its enormous challenges. At the beginning of the crisis, many families lost access to healthy food. Children did not have access to the school meals they received at their schools or day care centers, and the cost of food was rising while millions lost their jobs. Food security was faltering. This was when emergency measures were taken at the federal and state levels to provide food and cash to mitigate the blow to food security.
Researchers from the Nutrition Policy Institute (NPI), a research center at the California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) that monitors household health and nutrition, evaluated measures implemented during COVID-19 to help lower-income Helping people helped. families. The result is important because it shows how some social programs such as universal school meals, EITC and WIC represent a comprehensive approach to making healthy food accessible to all.
Here are his observations:
Universal School Meals and their Benefits
The National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program meet the food and nutritional needs of 30 million primary and secondary students across the country every day. Typically, students from families who meet income eligibility criteria receive free or reduced-price school meals, while others pay full price.
NPI researchers Wendy Gosliner, project scientist, and Lorraine Ritchie, director and UC Cooperative Extension Specialist, are co-studying school meals in California in collaboration with researchers from the Nourish Laboratory for Nutrition and Inclusion, who are studying school meals in Maine. Also checking about. and other states.
In March 2020, Congress authorized an expansion of the free school meals program to all students to prevent an increase in food insecurity among families with older children during COVID-19 and due to school closures. That federal provision expires in the 2021-2022 school year. However, because of the importance of universal school meals to student health and academic success, some states continue to provide them with state funding.
California was the first state to adopt a state universal meal program in the 2022-23 school year. With an investment of $650 million for infrastructure development for school kitchens, staff training and technical support in schools. That investment also includes farm to school programs and other school feeding systems. Maine and other states have also adopted universal school meals through the 2022-23 school year.
“States often act as incubators, those programs, if things work well at the state level, they sometimes become federal policy,” Gosliner said. Here’s how identifying the programs’ successes—as well as their challenges—can help policymakers at the state and national levels rethink the importance of universal school meals on students’ health and academic success.
For now, two investigations conducted in California and Maine, among personnel responsible for school feeding, have already allowed us to document the benefits of universal school meals. In California, of a total of 581 school food service leaders surveyed, nearly half (45.7%) reported that student stigma had decreased since school meals were expanded to all students. A similar finding occurred in Maine, with more than half (51%) of the 43 participants also reporting a reduction in stigma. Both studies showed an increase in student participation. This shows that universal school meals are serving the purpose of increasing participation and providing nutritionally balanced meals to all.
However, once the child leaves school, the responsibility of serving a nutritious meal at dinner time falls on the caregiver.
“Universal school meals provide meals and are a support to the family budget because many families have neither the income, time, nor resources to buy enough healthy food and beverages,” Gosliner said. he said.
There are other public programs that are important to the well-being of families and children. One example is the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC.
Many Eligible Households Don’t Claim Tax Refunds
The Earned Income Tax Credit is one of the most important programs in the fight against poverty. This is an important supplemental income that can bring in up to $7,000 per year for a family. Although this quality of life benefit is well known for low-income families, studies indicate that many eligible families do not participate. In 2018 alone, California lost $2 billion in unclaimed taxes.
Gosliner led a study documenting the level of awareness, barriers, and benefits to participating in the EITC, which found that a significant number of young households, where a language other than English is spoken, were unsure about refunds. I know less and therefore, they are less likely to achieve it. For this reason, the authors of the research offer the following recommendations:
- Simplify the process for obtaining reimbursement and provide greater security to increase participation,
- Provide more information to households who qualify for the EITC.
- In the long term, these strategies can reduce poverty and improve children’s health.
Increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables purchased has health benefits.
In addition to universal school meals and the EITC, low-income households may be eligible to receive WIC, or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, a supplement that is provided to women with children five years of age and younger. provides assistance to. For access to food, nutrition education and other social and health services.
One of the benefits of WIC food packages is the Cash Value Benefit, which provides a set dollar amount toward the purchase of fruits and vegetables. During the pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture increased this benefit from $9 to $35 per month, which was later increased to $24 per child per month in October 2021.
Ritchie says all of these changes have helped build up more evidence about the importance of WIC for children’s health.
Ritchie said, “Nine dollars only buys a quarter of the food a child should be eating every day.” “The increase in cash value benefits during the pandemic was an ideal measure to test its impact.”
In collaboration with Shannon Whaley and her team at Public Health Foundation Enterprises-WIC, NPI conducted a study among nearly 2,000 WIC participants in California, showing that increasing cash value benefits helped households buy more fruits and vegetables .
“Increasing the Cash Value Benefit for WIC families expands access to fruits and vegetables and allows children to try new foods. Trying all kinds of foods is important for establishing lifelong healthy habits,” Ritchie said.
The researchers found that an increase in WIC helped reduce food insecurity, and an increase in satisfaction with the program is expected to translate into the enrollment of more eligible households as well. In November 2022, the US Department of Agriculture proposed making the cash value benefit increase permanent in WIC.
In 2021, all state WIC agencies participated in the WIC Satisfaction Survey, which showed that consumption of fruits and vegetables among children in the WIC program increased by an average of one-third cup, a significant increase, taking into account the benefits Population receiving WIC.
NPI’s research on universal school meals, the EITC, and WIC is just one small part of a broader vision of making healthy eating accessible to all.
The NPI conducts extensive research on health and nutrition and other aspects of healthy eating, such as access to safe drinking water, child care, and nutrition education. For more information, visit the Nutrition Policy Institute website.