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Child Food Programs

Nutrition is important for everyone. As the saying goes, you are what you eat. For children, though, eating right becomes critical. Eating well as a child helps to establish a stable foundation for a healthy future physically, mentally and academically. Good food doesn't just support a healthy body and mind; it builds good eating habits that sustain lifelong good health.

Many American children don't get this vital nutrition at home. 13 million American children live in households that are considered "food insecure," meaning that access to basic minimum nutrition is uncertain.[1] The US Government's Food and Nutrition Service, operating under the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), runs programs designed to help these children get the nutrition that they need.

The largest and most widely used food support programs are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women's Infants and Children's (WIC) program for families with small children and pregnant mothers. There are additional programs that support child nutrition through healthy meals provided at schools or in neighborhoods. These programs can provide vital help to families who struggle not only with the cost of food but also with the time involved in meal preparation. Millions of American parents, especially single parents, work multiple jobs and are still barely getting by financially. Families in this position often have a hard time getting good meals onto the table even if there is food in the house. Meal programs can provide relief and the assurance that the kids are getting healthy meals on a daily basis.

These programs include the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, and the Special Milk Program. They are valuable resources for financially stressed parents or those who live in places that don't offer enough access to quality food. Let's take a closer look at what they offer.

National School Lunch Program (NSLP)
The NSLP is a federally assisted meal program that operates in public or nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. The goal of NSLP is to provide nutritionally balanced low-cost or free lunches to children each day. Schools that choose to take part in the program get cash subsidies and USDA approved foods for each meal that they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet federal requirements. They must also offer free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children.

Children from families with income at or below 130% of the federal poverty level are eligible for free lunches. Children who come from families between 130%-185% of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced-price lunches. Those over these income levels must pay full price for their meals.

Lunch matters. Offering a healthy mid-day meal free or at reduced cost encourages attendance and leads to improved academic performance.[2] If you are worried about the quality of the food your children eat, be sure to take full advantage of lunch support.

School Breakfast Program (SBP)
The SBP program provides cash assistance to states to operate nonprofit breakfast programs in residential child care institutions and schools. Schools that take part in the school breakfast program get cash subsidies and USDA approved foods in exchange for each meal that they serve and must serve breakfasts that meet federal requirements. They must also offer free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children. Breakfasts must meet the nutritional standards based on latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

To qualify for free and reduced-price meals, children need to come from homes at or below 130% of the federal poverty level and between 185%-130% for reduced priced meals. Children who come from families over 185% of federal poverty guidelines will pay full price.

Free or reduced-price breakfasts assures that children will not start off their academic day hungry, but well fed and ready to learn. The program has also proven that it boosts attendance and reduces tardiness.[3] Again, if your children's school offers this program, use it. It will give your kids nutritional support, make your mornings easier, and allow you to put a bit more money aside for other needs!

Summer Food Service Program (SFSP)
Children need nutrition even when they are on vacation. The Summer Food Service Program provides free and nutritious meals to low-income neighborhoods throughout the summer. SFSP is available for children 18 years and younger as well as to those who are older and may have disabilities. This program can provide vital support for parents who are working and may be unable to prepare meals for kids that are on summer holiday.

It's easy to get information on school feeding programs since you know exactly where they are delivered. The SFSP may be harder to track down. Local organizations run the program with government support, and it may not be well publicized. The Food and Nutrition Service offers information on how to locate SFSP centers in your area and how to bring the program to areas it doesn't serve yet.

The Bottom Line
Federal nutrition programs play a crucial role in helping children build healthy minds and bodies. They ensure that children will at least have some meals that are healthy, warm and filling. They allow children to come to school and eat; they allow daycare centers to provide healthy meals and keep their costs to parents down, and they allow nutrition programs to be offered in the community and to those who care for young children. These feeding programs also allow overworked parents to get their children healthy food without preparation time, a huge advantage to overworked and highly stressed parents who lack the time or the facilities to feed their children well, especially on a rushed weekday morning!

These programs are designed to help families eat well and stay healthy. If you have kids and these programs are available in your area, look them up and use them! It's always worth asking what the school can offer and what programs are available in your neighborhood. These efforts exist to help you and your children, and you are entitled to take advantage of all they offer!