Millions of children in America endure a cycle of poverty and food insecurity, often with seemingly few resources to ever break free. But a number of outstanding educational and community efforts are leading the way to a better future for our kids.
In terms of solutions, making sure these children consume the recommended servings of low-fat or fat-free milk and milk products every day may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But the reality is that proper nutrition from all food groups is a foundation for success throughout life. Drinking nutrient-rich milk is an important part of the foundation for a child’s health, offering nine essential nutrients and providing a framework for good eating habits over a lifetime.
Equally important, numerous studies summarized in the recent Wellness Impact report demonstrate the connection between improved nutrition and educational performance, and academic achievement is arguably one of the most reliable paths out of poverty. Consuming nutritious foods can help break down the course of poverty. Making good decisions like drinking a glass of low-fat milk - or eating an apple - can help shift the cycle. Or, it can at least give a kid a fighting chance.
Cultural influences and dietary choices
Even in the best of circumstances, kids often prefer the candy bar to the apple. Monica Reinagel, a.k.a the nutrition diva, speaks of a “double whammy” for disadvantaged kids in America. Not only are resources for nutrient-rich foods limited, but the cultural pressure to make the wrong choice is also stronger. Research by the Institute of Medicine and others demonstrate the disproportionate exposure of low-income, urban neighborhoods to marketing that encourages the consumption of unhealthy foods.
In 2009, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) published a study connecting socioeconomic status with nutrition. Calorie-dense fast food and candy with low nutritional value is readily available in lower-income neighborhoods, while fruit, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy are generally found in the higher-priced grocery stores and farmers markets that populate higher-income neighborhoods.
The lack of access to nutritious food and cultural influence of unhealthy, nutrient poor food (topped off with inadequate physical activity), among many other factors, has played a role in the epidemic of childhood overweight and obesity. But it’s an epidemic that many are fighting and slowly beating: from First Lady Michele Obama to teachers, parents, school administrators, community leaders and even local dairy farmers.
“Dairy farmers have been committed to the health and wellness of Americans, with an emphasis on child health since they founded National Dairy Council (NDC) nearly a century ago,” stated Jean H. Ragalie, RD, president of NDC. “And this includes addressing hunger and helping ensure every child has access to nutrient-rich foods and opportunities to thrive.”
Giving a kid a head start: Increasing choices, improving odds
The good news is there are tools already tested and in place helping kids from low-income backgrounds get a head start toward success. Several programs, both public and private, are already working in communities across the country to improve the nutrition of disadvantaged children: