This is Every Kid Healthy Week, invented to celebrate what schools are doing to turn out healthy kids. Would that every kid were healthy — or even that schools could make them all so.
Not saying schools can’t do a lot, mind you. They can, for example, schedule daily physical activities and offer after-school and summer sports programs.
They can include nutrition in their curricula and get kids interested in healthful foods, e.g., by having gardens where they can plant and tend vegetables. And they can, of course, serve nutritious meals, even if Congress lets them off the hook somewhat.
They can also, in many cases, help ensure that kids who need those meals most actually get them by taking advantage of a new option called community eligibility. And a growing number of schools are.
That’s the good news. The bad news, also delivered shortly before this celebratory week, is that many children with dangerously high levels of lead in their blood are more likely to suffer toxic effects because they don’t get enough of the right kinds of things to eat. And no real news, alas, from Congress.
Free School Meals for More Poor Kids
Schools ordinarily require parents to apply for free or reduced-price meals for their children — and to reapply every year. This, needless to say, is a barrier, especially for parents who don’t read well and/or fear scrutiny by bureaucrats.
Schools must bypass this process for children whose families receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits. They may also directly certify children who receive certain other federal benefits, e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
They can do this, however, only if their computer system links to systems in other agencies and can perform data matches. For this and perhaps other reasons, they missed well over one in five eligible children in 2013-14, the latest year we have figures for.
The newest version of the Child Nutrition Act gives some schools another option that eliminates not only the application and technology barriers, but another — the stigma low-income children feel if they go to the cafeteria.
Schools with at least 40% of children who automatically qualify for free school meals may opt for community eligibility. In other words, they can expand eligibility for free school meals to the entire student community.
Last year was only the second that all high-poverty schools could seize this opportunity. More did, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Food Research and Action Center report.
Just over half of all schools that could had adopted community eligibility by the end of the school year. A lot of variation, as one might guess.
The District of Columbia reached 87%, second only to North Dakota. Less than a quarter of high-poverty schools in 10 states were adopters. But almost all states had more schools participating than during the first year when what had been a pilot program became an option nationwide.
Higher Lead Poisoning Risks Due to Poor Nutrition
We’re all familiar now with exposure to lead poisoning — from water, as in Flint, Michigan, which put the problem on the public radar screen, and from other sources, e.g., paint, contaminated soil.
And we’re familiar with the lifelong damages that lead in the body can cause, especially in young children, and with the fact that alarming numbers of those tested have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.
These children are only the tip of the iceberg because states don’t test all children for lead poisoning — even apparently all children at high risk. But what we do know indicates that it’s far more common among children in high-poverty communities — presumably then among poor and near-poor children.
Certain vitamins and minerals can reduce lead absorption and/or the toxic effects of lead absorbed. So a well-balanced diet does even more for children’s health than what’s commonly said.
Looked at the other way, children at high risk of lead exposure are also at higher risk for harmful health effects because the foods they’re served at home are less likely to deliver enough of the protective nutrients.
The Urban Institute tries to show an actual link by focusing on a subset of high-poverty counties — those that tested at least 1,000 children and found at least 5% with blood lead levels over the Center for Disease Control’s high-risk threshold.
The five with the highest test results also had child food insecurity rates above the very high national average, it reports. Most of the rest of the counties it sampled had higher than average rates too.
So, wrapping back around, high-poverty schools have an extra incentive, were one needed, to opt for community eligibility.
What Only Congress Can Do, But Isn’t
Community eligibility can do only so much. Many low-income children are too young for even kindergarten, of course. They’ll need well-balanced meals and snacks in daycare programs.
School-age children will need the same during summer months, when their families now often have to stretch their too-low SNAP benefits to feed them as many as 10 extra meals a week.
The Urban Institute draws the connection. Only Congress can expand and strengthen the programs that are supposed to prevent hunger and malnutrition among low-income children.
It’s again let the umbrella for these programs — the Child Nutrition Act — expire, though it’s given the current law a brief extension.
The Senate has had a pretty good bill to reauthorize the CNA pending since late January. But the Majority Leader seems more preoccupied with the Supreme Court vacancy — and with proving that he and his Republican colleagues can get something done.
Don’t even look to the House, which is apparently looking to the Senate to pass its version of the CNA. It will, of course, have to vote on a bill sooner or later.
Seems that action there could, among other things, roll back progress on community eligibility, since the draft committee bill would raise the opt-in threshold to 60% of poor and near-poor students.
Action to help Flint get the lead out of its water — and to prevent more such crises — seems stalled too, by one lone Senator, who asserts that Michigan has plenty of money.
No concern about lead poisoning elsewhere, but rather that his colleagues would just “funnel taxpayer money to their own home states,” as if they don’t have corroding lead water pipes too.
More concern on the part of the Majority Leader to protect a dubious Senate custom than endangered children, it seems — or perhaps more to prevent another intra-party rift.
Too soon to say how any of this will ultimately pan out. But it’s clear that Every Kid Healthy Week is a bittersweet occasion.