Closing the Gap: One Policy Solution to Improve Child Health and School Readiness

Emily 129Emily, a mother and member of Witnesses to Hunger, whose son benefited from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) from birth to age five, passionately discusses the ways in which WIC enabled her to purchase Lactaid milk for her son who is lactose intolerant; his milk costs twice the price of regular milk for half the quantity. She like, many other mothers around the US know that WIC improves the health of their children.

Continuous access to nutritious foods supports healthy child growth and development and prepares children to enter kindergarten ready to learn. WIC provides children with necessary nutrients, nutrition education, and clinical care from birth to their fifth birthday, during a time of critical brain and body growth.

Many children, including Emily’s son, however, experience a gap in nutritional support between turning five and entering kindergarten, where they are then able to participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. Increasing WIC eligibility to age six would close this gap and improve the health of young children before they enter school.

When Emily’s son aged out of WIC on this fifth birthday in April, Emily struggled for the four intervening months between his birthday and starting school to afford enough healthful food for her family while having enough money set aside for her son’s expensive dietary needs.

Research shows continuous participation in WIC improves health

Children’s HealthWatch and others have shown that WIC is an effective program for boosting child health and development. Participation in WIC has been shown to improve physical health, cognitive development, diet quality, consumption of iron-rich foods, and household food security.

In a policy action brief released recently, Children’s HealthWatch examines WIC retention in Minnesota, a state which ranks highly in enrollment of WIC-eligible women and children. This study finds that children who previously participated in WIC, but who became disengaged from the program had higher prevalence of being overweight and were less frequently considered ‘well’ than those who continually received WIC during early childhood. A ‘well child’ is what every parent and pediatrician hopes for – a child who is considered to be in good or excellent health, not at risk of developmental delays, has not been hospitalized, and has a healthy weight for his or her age.

Closing the Gap: Extending WIC-eligibility

Recognizing the importance of providing children with vital nutrients throughout childhood, the United States has implemented comprehensive child nutrition policies that ensure children living in families experiencing economic hardships are fed from birth through high school. These programs include WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, and the Summer Food Service Program. These programs and others that ensure children are fed during critical stages of growth and development are reauthorized by Congress every five years in the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act. The current act expires at the end of September 2015 and its renewal is currently being discussed in Congress.

The arbitrary gap in nutritional support caused when children become too old for WIC, but are still too young for school meals creates a hole in this structure that impacts to health of children.  Most school districts require children to enter kindergarten after they have turned five. However, the birthdate cut-off for entering school varies by district and some children must wait anywhere from a few months to almost an entire calendar year to enter school, leaving them to  experience up to one year without essential nutrition support.  Moreover it inadvertently creates a system where children, particularly those with special food needs, may be unnecessarily forced to go without needed, more expensive foods simply due to where in the calendar year their birthday falls.

The millions of young children around this country who, like Emily’s son, benefit from the foods offered through WIC prior to starting kindergarten deserve to be well-fed and ready to start school. As Congress considers key improvements to child nutrition programs, including the WIC Act, members should look to the research for solutions for keeping children healthy. WIC works and improving access by closing age gaps between programs will more fully support the health of this nation’s children.


Photo by Emily, member of Witnesses to Hunger