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Feeding the Whole Child: The Role of Nutrition in Child Development

For many families throughout the United States, good nutrition and a solid meal are not always guaranteed. Families want their children to be healthy, safe and nurtured. However, for families struggling financially or living in so-called “food deserts,” securing affordable and healthy grocery options, like fresh fruits and vegetables, are limited, and serving nutritious food is not always possible. This issue can adversely affect child development.

It is important to educate families on the impact of poor nutrition on child development, including how it can lead to a waterfall of health problems, beginning with physical effects. A poor diet contributes to high rates of heart disease, diabetes, and various forms of cancer. Some 50% of U.S. adults have diabetes or prediabetes, and among U.S. teens, 25% have diabetes or prediabetes, according to the medical publication STAT.

A less-known consequence of a poor diet on child development is the detrimental effect on emotional welfare. An inadequate diet can lead to stress, depression, and increased risk for mood changes for children as they enter their teens. Educators working in middle and high schools often approach problems created during their students’ early years.

On top of that, a poor diet impairs cognitive ability, even as young as infancy. Studies conducted by the University of Illinois researchers show that poor nutrition is associated with diminished cognitive performance, including functional abilities such as inhibition, working memory, and planning and organizational abilities.

Poor nutrition is a multi-faceted problem and not only for children; the U.S. has the dubious honor of being one of the most unhealthy nations in the world, ranking #12 in obesity.

Speaking with families about healthy eating, particularly for their children, is critical, especially during birth through five years old when physical and cognitive development is accelerated. With the right informational resources, it becomes easier to have these conversations and lay the foundation for families to adopt healthy eating habits.

Passing Healthy Nutritional Habits Down to Future Generations

In the first CHS blog post, we mentioned a two-generation approach of passing down economic stability and overall well-being across generations. The same family-based approach applies to how we talk about, prepare, and consume our food.

A recent study by the CDC analyzing children’s health showed that one in two children do not eat a vegetable each day, and one in three do not eat fruit daily, as reported by CBS Philadelphia. However, many of us are working to change that statistic.

We pass down everything, from our DNA to clothes to culture; it is time we encourage families to pass down an understanding that nutritious food is one of the best ways to foster child development and build the foundation for their child’s success today, tomorrow, and for the rest of their lives.

Getting the Right Ingredients

Globally, only one in three children aged six to 23 months eats the minimum diverse diet needed for healthy growth and development. For children to develop and have the opportunity to reach their full potential, they need the right foods to help fuel their minds and bodies, and their families need to understand the resources available to them.

There are a number of programs and initiatives that offer assistance. For example, “food is medicine” is not just clever wordplay; it is a real-life campaign that the U.S. government has started that incorporates approving state requests to use Medicaid to pay for groceries and nutritional counseling, as reported by Tufts University.

It is essential that we keep families and ECE professionals apprised of helpful initiatives that focus on food as a vital part of healthy development. The American Heart Association, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the grocery store chain Kroger have pledged $250 million to create a Food is Medicine Research Initiative aimed at providing communities with access to healthy foods. 

It can be difficult for anyone to navigate the overwhelming influx of information on the internet, television, and social media, and from friends and family regarding what they should feed their children. There is a serious need for accurate and easily digestible resources on proper nutrition.

Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning (CHS) strives to address that problem by providing nutrition education and support to families centered on recognizing and eliminating barriers to healthy eating. Working with families, CHS identifies options accessible to the families in their area, including federal and local programs, such as food banks, to ensure they have access to nutritious food and healthier options. CHS is dedicated to supporting and guiding its families to continue to be successful after their child transitions out of the program. In addition to that guidance, CHS also provides year-round resources to its children including nutritious meals. Learn more about the other year-round resources CHS provides to help children thrive at school and at home.

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Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning are subsidiaries of Milton Hershey School and will be staffed and operated independently of the Milton Hershey School core model.

Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.