RiverStone Health and our community partners take pride in our work to support the health and well-being of our neighbors. However, our work can’t compensate for a poor diet. Food and nutrition are foundational to good health. This connection is true for all ages but is particularly important for young children going through pivotal stages of physical and cognitive development.

Federal child food programs — school meals, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, summer food service program, and The Child and Adult Care Food Program offered through child care providers — are key nutrition resources for families in Yellowstone County and Montana. Why are these services needed in a bustling economy?

  • Local unemployment is around 3% but many jobs do not pay a living wage. Low wages, the rising cost of housing and child care leaves many families struggling.
  • About 40% of Billings Public Schools students and 40% to 44% of all Montana K-12 students receive free or reduced price school meals because their parents, most of whom work, can’t afford healthy food all month.
  • Prolonged lack of sufficient quality food harms children’s health, growth and development as well as their ability to focus and succeed in school. Their lack of focus distracts others compromising everyone’s education. Long-term food insecurity can have lifelong adverse consequences that are costly to the individual and to society.

Child food programs help relieve some of the stress of living with food insecurity, maximize the effectiveness of health care programs and ensure all children have access to the food and nutrition needed to thrive.

We see the importance of WIC daily, as RiverStone Health WIC serves nearly 2,800 women, infants, and children across Yellowstone County and the surrounding area. In addition to healthy food benefits, WIC provides vital services like access to nutrition education and counseling, breast feeding support, ongoing health screenings, referrals to health care providers and other social services.

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Over 40 years of evidence confirms WIC participation leads to fewer premature births and infant deaths, improved dietary outcomes for infants and children, and improved maternal health. Despite the success and importance of WIC, participation in the program is not maximized, meaning more families are eligible for these vital benefits.

Congress has an important opportunity to strengthen access to and participation in child nutrition programs including WIC, the school meal program and the Summer Food Service Program through the Child Nutrition Reauthorization process. These suggestions can maximize the benefits of these programs:

  • Extend the WIC certification period. This ensures families, including pregnant women, are connected to the program. The first 1,000 days of a child’s life (conception to age 2) are critical to physical development, particularly brain development. Deficits occurring during this period can permanently impair intellectual growth and lead to costly developmental delays and life-long reliance on social welfare programs.
  • Close the age 5 nutrition gap. Currently 5-year-olds age out of WIC. If they are not yet in school, where they can receive nutritious meals, they may not consume enough of the healthy foods needed for optimal development.
  • Expand Community Eligibility Provision criteria so more schools in low-income areas qualify for CEP free meals.
  • Incentivize schools to provide alternative school breakfast programs like Breakfast In the Classroom. These programs improve behavior and academic engagement, as has been verified in Billings and Hardin schools districts.
  • Eliminate the Reduced Price Meal category, which many low-income families struggle to afford. Only about 16% of students receiving free and reduced price meals are reduced price eligible. Instead, provide free school meals to all children from families earning less than 185% of the Federal Poverty Level ($47,637 for a family of four).
  • Make it easier for school districts to provide free summer meals to low-income students by streamlining administration of the Summer Food Service Program.

Childhood nutrition programs are relatively inexpensive but highly effective interventions that support normal growth and development, improved health and academic progress, including graduation. The result in a healthier, more skilled workforce capable of supporting their families.

We urge Congress to act and strengthen access to and participation in child nutrition programs.

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Gayle Espeseth is the manager of RiverStone Health’s WIC program. Virginia Mermel, Ph.D., CNS is a food security advocate and member of Montana Partnership to End Childhood Hunger.