How We Can Improve Child Nutrition When Healthy Eating Isn’t Accessible

Robert Murray, MD (Action for Healthy Kids (AFHK) Board Member) and Grace Perry, RD, LD (AFHK Program Manager) recently shared that children are the products of their environment and experiences; like sponges, they absorb all that’s around them. They’re constantly picking up language, mannerisms, ideas, and habits. The people in a child’s life — especially during their formative years — will have a lasting influence on them for years to come.

That’s why it’s critical for everyone from family members to teachers to coaches to faith leaders to understand the impact they have on a child’s diet and nutrition and the resources they have available to support children’s healthy eating habits from the start. Diet quality can affect a child’s growth. Not only can it change their physical development, but it impacts cognition, behavior, well-being, and ability to deal with life’s challenges as kids grow older.

Despite the fact that there is an abundance of publicly and privately funded programs and resources with the goal of improving children’s healthy eating opportunities, experts agree that these resources don’t always stretch far enough or get to those who need them the most. Furthermore, an urgent need for these programs is often unforeseen for parents who may have sudden financial obstacles to overcome.

In order to help all children access the type of nutritious food they need, here are challenges and available resources that we can apply at home, in school, and in the community to ensure they become the products of a healthy, informed and supportive environment.

At home

Almost half of all U.S. children — 41 percent of kids under 18 — live in low-income households. Additionally, 23.5 million people live in food deserts, or areas where it’s difficult to access affordable and healthy food. For families experiencing accessibility or affordability issues, it can be tough to navigate providing nutritious foods that also provide the necessary taste, value, and convenience. Not only are overly processed foods and fast foods typically cheaper and easier to prepare than healthy foods, but they are also often the only options in the area. When nutritious alternatives are expensive and few and far between, the outcome is families relying on the unhealthy, quick-fix solutions around them.

While parents and guardians may not easily be able to bring new stores into their neighborhood, they can learn how to prepare healthy foods for their families on a limited budget. There are also valuable programs and resources for primary caregivers to increase their family’s access to healthy eating (though many are location-dependent):

  • Action for Healthy Kids and Dole’s interactive, digital Healthy Eating Toolkit includes healthy recipes, recommendations for eating healthy on a budget, resources, and tips to ensure children build lifelong healthy habits.
  • Local resources and programs may exist in some areas, such as grocery store alternatives like mobile markets and food delivery services, school meal programs and community gardens or local food pantries with delivery options.
  • Speak to a healthcare provider who may be able to help, not only with food resources but also with housing, transportation, health, mental health and other issues that can suddenly arise.

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