May 15, 2014Burlington Free Press
Jenna Whitson

April 25 marked the launch of Let’s Grow Kids, a public education campaign to raise awareness about how critical Vermont children’s earliest years are in determining their long-term success. Let’s Grow Kids will highlight the important role nutrition plays in a quality early experience.

Children need to be well nourished to take advantage of early learning activities and reach their full potential.

Adequate nutrition is especially essential during the first three years of life, when 80 percent of the brain is developing. During this crucial period, children need a nutritious diet to get the essential nutrients they need to grow and develop. Infants and young children who are not getting enough to eat will reduce their activity and withdraw from their environment — removing themselves from critical learning opportunities. Nerve pathways that are not reinforced through activity and learning get pruned away — ultimately affecting the structure and function of the child’s brain for their lifetime.

Nutrition is key for immediate growth and development and to build a foundation for the life trajectory of the individual.

However, 23 percent of Vermont’s youngest children — almost 1 in 4 — live in homes without consistent access to adequate food. These children are living on the least expensive, poorest-quality food, and occasionally going without.

They are at great risk for mental health and behavioral problems, developmental delays, poor health, lack of school readiness, and obesity. Let’s Grow Kids reports that 40-50 percent of children show up to kindergarten unprepared. It is likely that many of those children lacked access to regular nutritious meals to fuel their learning and build the nerve pathways for future development.

Improved behavior, better health

High quality early education programs that include meals are an opportunity to ensure that all children have consistent access to quality nutrition. Research has linked meals in childcare with improved behavior, better health, and obesity prevention. Shared meals provide an opportunity for children and staff to sit and eat together, helping to develop both eating and social skills.

At a childcare center in Burlington, staff shared with me that family-style meals in their program are opportunities to expose children to a variety of foods and teach healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.

Currently less than half of the childcare programs in Vermont provide meals, though there is a federal program that reimburses for meals. Barriers to serving meals identified by providers include the need for better infrastructure, information and more funding. There is much work to be done in Vermont to expand this program to ensure that all children have access to healthy meals and snacks where they learn and play. More public support for quality early childhood programs is one step we can take to help us get there.

Let’s Grow Kids recognizes the critical role that nutrition plays in development and highlights the fact that children need adequate nutrition as one key aspect of a quality early experience to reach their full potential. Please join me in supporting the movement to give our children every opportunity to succeed. Visit Letsgrowkids.org to get involved.

Jenna Whitson, of Richmond, is child nutrition advocate for Hunger Free Vermont.

Click here to read this article at burlingtonfreepress.com.

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