Disclaimer: Moving Health Care Upstream is a collaborative effort originally co-led by Nemours Children’s Health System (Nemours) and the Center for Healthier Children, Families & Communities at the University of California- Los Angeles (UCLA). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Nemours, UCLA or the Moving Health Care Upstream initiative.
Authors: Vy Oxman and Roshelle Payes
The COVID-19 pandemic has had serious impacts on the health and well-being of families and children, particularly among Black and Latino communities. Unemployment and poverty exacerbated the twin epidemics of food insecurity and obesity for children. As of June 2020, an estimated 14,000,000 children were not getting enough to eat. Research also shows an increase in childhood obesity since the onset of the pandemic that has widened pre-existing disparities. Additionally, the pandemic severely impacted the early care and education (ECE) sector, as child care programs faced lengthy closures, reduced enrollment, and financial constraints. In response, the President and Congress increased funding for federal programs that address food insecurity, early childhood, and the child care sector through the American Rescue Plan and other COVID-19 packages.[i] As the sector begins to recover, we must turn our focus to improving children’s health and well-being and addressing the inequities in communities most impacted by the pandemic. We urge Congress and the Biden Administration to focus on quality improvements in the ECE settings, not only for school readiness but to improve the health, nutrition and wellness of children.
The early years, particularly the first 5 years of life, can have long-term impacts on an individual’s social, cognitive, emotional, and physical development. ECE programs – including child care centers, Head Start, pre-K and family child care homes, play an important role in the healthy development of children. These programs provide millions of children with free or reduced-price meals daily, accounting for more than half of some children’s daily caloric intake. Children who experience food insecurity are twice as likely to be in fair or poor health compared to children who are not food insecure. Unfortunately, food insecurity is often paired with overweight and obesity and increases the likelihood of unhealthy weight gain among children as families shift to less costly, calorically dense, shelf-stable foods rather than fresh foods. Further, childhood obesity is associated with poor health outcomes such as cardiovascular diseases, certain types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Research supports early childhood as a crucial time for developing healthy habits that may help to prevent obesity.
As we move from recovery to rebuilding, we urge Congress and the Administration to enact policies that support ECE programs to improve access to nutritious food and physical activity. We have a unique opportunity to “build back healthier” in the child care sector by providing direct training to ECE professionals and improving state systems to integrate obesity prevention and healthy development strategies.
The Reducing Obesity in Youth Act (ROYA) would enhance health and wellness in ECE programs, setting a healthy trajectory for infants and young children that could impact the rest of their lives. ROYA would authorize the National Early Child Care Collaboratives Program that currently operates in 11 states and has reached more than 322,000 children and 6,000 child care programs since 2012. ROYA would award five-year funding to improve healthy eating and physical activity and address food insecurity among children in child care. More specifically, ROYA would provide support for direct training and technical assistance to ECE providers on best practices for obesity prevention and would support states in integrating nutrition and physical activity standards into existing state systems. This could help improve ECE professionals’ cooking and food preparation skills and help expand outdoor learning environments, particularly in underserved communities. ROYA would also help link ECE programs to new and existing resources for food and nutrition supports, with a focus on promoting equity. Finally, it would provide participating states with more flexibility to address other issues relevant to children’s healthy development.
Senator Cory Booker (NJ) and Representative Steve Cohen (TN, 9th District) have introduced ROYA in previous years and will re-introduce it in the 117th Congress.
“Promoting healthy habits among children at an early age is critically important for their future well-being. I am proud to have introduced the Reducing Obesity in Youth Act which will help communities address childhood obesity and support physical activity programs, and look forward to continuing my work on this important issue.”- Senator Cory Booker (NJ)
“I have long been concerned that Tennessee has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the nation. The national childhood obesity rate is dangerously high but, in recent years, Tennessee has trended even higher than the national average. This unfortunate distinction has been worsened by the ongoing pandemic health crisis, which has had seriously detrimental effects on the health and well-being of children and families. Research has shown that early childhood is an important time for developing positive dietary and physical activity habits. The Reducing Obesity in Youth Act would encourage and support these positive behaviors by creating a competitive grant program to incentivize the development of earlier health and nutrition education choices for our children. We have to help our children get healthy starts so they can lead healthy lives.” -Representative Steve Cohen (TN-09)
“The pandemic has compounded the stressors on children and families. ROYA would help to bolster efforts to support access to nutritious foods at a critical time in a critical place,” Dr. Kara Odom Walker, Executive Vice President and Chief Population Health Officer for Nemours Children’s Health, said. “Nemours has shown that by incorporating a focus on healthy eating and physical activity into early care and education settings, we can support the development of healthful habits. We applaud Senator Booker and Congressman Cohen for working to introduce legislation that builds upon Nemours’ pioneering work and would benefit children and families across the country.”
There is a huge opportunity to promote children’s healthy development as Congress works to stabilize and rebuild the child care sector. Now is the time to make much-needed improvements not only in child care access but also in quality and workforce training. Passing ROYA is an important step in that direction.
[i] The American Rescue Plan (ARP) and 2020 COVID-19 relief packages provided more than $50 billion to stabilize the child care sector by providing fiscal relief to child care centers and raising wages for the ECE workforce. The ARP also provides financial support to families with children. The proposed American Families Plan would invest an additional $425 billion in childcare and early learning, and extend previously passed financial relief for families with children.