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Many Latino families don’t have access to healthy, nutritious foods.
To put food on the table, they rely on government food aid programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
But many people of color don’t participate, even if eligible.
Now two congresswomen of color — Reps. Jahana Hayes and Jenniffer González-Colón — introduced the WIC for Kids Act to eliminate barriers to enrollment for millions of pregnant women, mothers, and children, improve child and maternal health, and increase food access.
“I introduced the WIC for Kids Act of 2021 to make it less burdensome on families to enroll in the SNAP for WIC by streamlining the process and providing automatic eligibility for WIC when families have documented eligibility in other programs,” Hayes said. “It has been demonstrated that WIC improves the health of children, benefits local economies, and promotes lifelong healthy habits.”
The WIC for Kids Act and its Goals
The sad fact is: Many people could access federal food aid, but they don’t.
For Latinos, barriers like restrictive eligibility rules for immigrants, as well as a fear of deportation or barring from legal residency, discourage immigrants from seeking help through federal assistance programs, like food and housing aid.
“Millions of mothers and children who are eligible for WIC do not access the benefit. In fact, only 56.9% of eligible Americans participate in WIC, with a 30% decrease in retention of children in the program from 0-5 years old,” Hayes, who has advocated for a White House Conference on Hunger, said.
The WIC for Kids Act will address five key areas of concern:
- Extend child certification periods (length of time to receive benefits) to two years
- Provide flexibility to align certification periods among family members.
- Expand adjunctive eligibility to include members of a family participating in SNAP, Medicaid, and TANF.
- Expand adjunctive eligibility to include Head Start, Early Head Start, FDPIR, and CHIP.
- Prioritize outreach to kinship families.
The WIC for Kids Act seeks to simplify the eligibility process families undergo when seeking participation in that program, according to González-Colón, who serves the people of Puerto Rico.
“By looking at adjunctive eligibility and participation in other federally-funded programs, we are allowing more time and energy to be focused on other aspects of the eligibility process, as well as potentially increasing the amount of constituents that are eligible and could benefit from WIC but are currently not participating,” González-Colón. “In Puerto Rico, we have over 100,000 WIC participants, making this a significant source of assistance for mothers and children on the Island. I am proud to be an original cosponsor and look forward to continuing working alongside Rep. Hayes and her staff on moving this bill forward.”
Specifically, the bill confers automatic eligibility for WIC for mothers and children who:
- Reside in a household in which a member participates in SNAP.
- Participate in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
- Participate in Head Start or reside in a household in which one or more children are enrolled in Head Start.
- Reside in a household that participates in Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.
- Are members of a family of a pregnant woman, postpartum woman, infant, or child that receives medical assistance from Medicaid or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
This bill is an essential step in reaching eligible children and ensuring that all kids get a healthy start, according to Rev. Douglas Greenaway, President & CEO of the National WIC Association.
“As the evidence continues to grow that WIC leads to healthier outcomes and reduces childhood obesity, we should be prioritizing solutions that make it easier for children to remain enrolled for WIC’s effective nutrition support,” Greenaway said. “This bill doubles down on strategic partnerships and administrative flexibilities that will enhance children’s health and reduce overall healthcare costs.”
Currently, the bill is still in the works.
After its introduction, Congress will have the opportunity to make changes to WIC and other child nutrition programs in the coming months as the Senate Agriculture Committee and House Education and Labor Committee begin the process of Child Nutrition Reauthorization.
Latinos and Nutrition Injustice
Food insecurity is prevalent in the United States, especially in Latino and Black communities.
Latino and Black households are more likely to suffer food insecurity (16.2% and 21.2%, respectively) than the national average (11.1%), according to USDA data.
“Despite their best efforts to make healthy choices in stores, three-quarters of parents reported difficulty shopping at grocery stores due to the prevalence of unhealthy foods and children’s preference for them,” Ramos writes in an Op-Ed in The Hill. “Junk food marketing especially targets Black and Latino children, who are more likely to view fast food advertising compared to their White peers. This trend has become more pronounced over the last several years.”
In schools, school meals are rising as a solution to both food insecurity and nutrition insecurity, especially for students of color.
But for Latino students, many attend schools with high levels of access to unhealthy foods and sugary drinks. Latino students ate or drank 47 more “low-nutrient” calories per day than their peers, according to a Salud America! research review.
Now COVID-19 is worsening food access.
“USDA is right to address the barriers of costs, time and transportation to healthy eating facing SNAP participants,” Ramos writes in an Op-Ed in The Hill. “However, USDA should also focus on the role of food industry marketing, which disproportionately targets people who participate in SNAP and others with low incomes. Consumers should not have to fight an upstream battle alone against the many factors that conspire to serve food industry profit over their health.”
What You Can Do
As the WIC for Kids Act works it way through Congress, all people can take action to make a difference.
The University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity offers suggestions for actions that federal, state and local governments can take, including: Creating nutrition standards for kids’ meals and eliminating unhealthy food and beverage marketing to children as a tax-deductible expense.
Moreover, their recommendations include how public health advocates and practitioners can push for changes to these marketing practices.
“Develop campaigns to increase public awareness of the vast amounts of primarily unhealthy fast-food advertising, especially advertising that disproportionately targets children, teens, and communities of color,” the Rudd Center report states. “Support youth-led countermarketing campaigns to expose marketing practices by the top fast-food advertisers.”
You can also make a difference in your community’s nutrition.
Download a Salud America! Health Equity Report Card!
The report card shows many local children live in food deserts, have low food access, and get SNAP food benefits. Then you can compare it to your state and to the country.
Email your Health Equity Report Card to community leaders and share it on social media. Then use it to make the case to address food insecurity and nutrition security where help is needed most!