Now Viewing: Child and Family Well-Being

Harnessing Sports to Build Healthier, More Equitable Communities

Mar 25, 2021, 1:00 PM, Posted by Alisha Greenberg

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Sports Award is removing barriers to health equity through sports.

A smiling student holds a basketball while standing in a school hallway.

In Harlem, girls as young as age 6 are figure skating while receiving academic, social and emotional support. In Cambridge, people who were once incarcerated are now on a career path to become fitness trainers. In Atlanta, youth are playing soccer on previously unused land near train stations, repurposed as soccer fields. On both sides of the United States/Mexico border, youth are building friendships and getting professional tennis instruction coupled with academic enrichment.

All four of the unique programs doing this work have received the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Sports Award for catalyzing and sustaining change and addressing social determinants of health. They and similar programs that have received this honor are made possible by professional teams, athletes, coaches, and community-based organizations that are using sports to make communities healthier places to live, learn, work and play. In doing so, they are reaching people who might not otherwise have the chance to engage in organized sports, with the physical and mental health benefits that come with it.

Launched in 2015, the RWJF program now gives up to five awards each year to organizations that bring a deep understanding of community needs, provide safe places to play, and help youth reach their potential by building meaningful relationships, life skills, resilience and more. Acknowledging that sports has a history of oppression and racism, the program also recognizes that it has the power to provide healing, prevent violence, and galvanize communities. We have seen evidence of that over the last year, as athletes and teams have used their platforms and megaphones to advance racial justice, oppose police violence, and more, and teams have turned their stadiums into voter registration sites, polling places and, in recent weeks, vaccination hubs.

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How School Meals Help Families Impacted by the Pandemic

Mar 16, 2021, 1:00 PM, Posted by Jamie Bussel

School meals are a lifeline to tens of millions of families across the country. Learn about new research showing why healthy meals are so important—and opportunities to help schools ensure more families have access to the healthy foods they need.

Families gather in long car lines at a Houston distribution site. Families gather in car lines at a Houston meal distribution site. Photo Credit: Houston Independent School District

On a typical day before the pandemic, school food service workers across America did far more than serve lunch to the nearly 30 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program, and the nearly 15 million participating in the School Breakfast Program. Many also served afterschool snacks and even dinners for students to take home to their families. These school meals are a lifeline for tens of millions of kids and families who are furthest from economic opportunity.

All of this changed in March 2020 when schools across the country began closing in droves in response to COVID-19. Students in Houston were getting ready for Spring Break just as lockdowns began. This timing meant that instead of being stocked to serve students for the week, refrigerators across the Houston Independent School District (HISD) were empty.

Upon facing the reality that millions of families across Houston would need food, Betti Wiggins, the nutrition services officer for the HISD, sprang into action.

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Sesame Street Offers Support to Families Coping with Pandemic Stress

Nov 16, 2020, 10:45 AM, Posted by Jeanette Betancourt, Katie Wehr

Navigating the holidays amid a pandemic is stressful. Sesame Street in Communities is offering support to help families cope with both common and new challenges.

Sesame Street Photo Credit: Sesame Workshop / Zach Hyman

Both of us, like many in America, are feeling anxious and unsure about what the upcoming holidays will look like for families. It’s difficult to know how to prepare or talk about this, and really all that is going on, with the young children in our lives.

Throughout this year our kids have continuously faced several changes. Suddenly their routines and schedules are different. Many are not seeing friends, family, teachers, and classmates in person as often or at all. They miss what felt normal and comfortable and they have all sorts of questions about what is happening and why. They struggle with what to do with all the “big feelings” they are experiencing.

They can also sense increased stress that the adults in their lives are facing. Adults are juggling care for their children, often adding homeschool teacher or “videochat technical support wizard” to already increased workloads. Those who are teachers, work in health care, or have other “essential” positions face significant danger and stress in their jobs every day. Others have lost jobs or are trying to protect or care for aging parents during a pandemic. Through all of this uncertainty and loss, parents and caregivers need ways to care for themselves, and children need to know they are going to be safe.

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Helping All New Jerseyans Live Their Healthiest Lives

Sep 17, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Sallie George

We're breaking down barriers to health equity in our home state of New Jersey by encouraging collaboration across sectors and communities.

Girls running after school with hands up.

New Jersey is ranked as one of the nation’s healthiest states—on average. But if you were to look more closely, you’d see the numbers mask significant differences in health across the state. For instance life expectancy in one Newark census tract is 75.6 years while just a few miles outside the city, it’s 87.7 years.

Race is a big factor contributing to this and other health disparities. For example, babies born into Black families in New Jersey are twice as likely to die before their first birthday in contrast to those born into white families.

Other factors contributing to health disparities include income, gender, and education. Some are less apparent, like the distance from people’s homes to parks and grocery stores or the availability of public transit. The point is that many things beyond what might immediately be thought of as health related do, in fact, play a major role in determining health. 

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To Help Recover From COVID-19, We Need Universal Free School Meals

Jul 9, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Jamie Bussel

As school officials face tough decisions about the 2020–2021 school year, the last thing they should be worrying about is determining who qualifies for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Empty school lunch room.

For tens of millions of children in the United States, school isn’t just a place to learn, but a place where they can depend on receiving healthy meals. In March 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 31 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and more than 17 million participated in the School Breakfast Program (SBP); the vast majority of children receiving these school meals are from families with low incomes.

So when COVID-19 swept across the nation this spring and forced at least 124,000 schools in the United States serving 55 million students to close, a public health crisis quickly became an education crisis and a nutrition crisis.

School districts responded quickly, creatively, and heroically, implementing “Grab and Go” models allowing parents to pick up meals in school parking lots or other community hubs; loading up school buses with meals and dropping them off at stops along neighborhood routes; and delivering meals directly to students’ homes. USDA did its part by issuing a series of waivers granting more flexibility in how meals could be prepared, packaged, and served. Particularly for students living in poverty and areas where healthy foods are typically scarce, the heroism of school officials and volunteers was a lifeline.

Today, there are more questions than answers about the 2020–2021 school year, which may be unlike we’ve ever experienced. But the last thing school officials should be worrying about upon reopening is how to process meal applications and figuring out who qualifies for free or reduced-price categories; their mission of educating and feeding students as safely as possible should be their primary concern.

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The Impact of Changing SNAP and School Meals During COVID-19

Apr 3, 2020, 8:00 AM, Posted by Jennie Day-Burget

Emergency relief would shore up programs, but longer-term proposals would still reduce access to food stamps, make school meals less healthy.

A sign indicates that a school is closed.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in thousands of deaths in the United States and has upended daily life for millions of people across the country. Part of the emergency response at all levels of government has been to ensure that children and families continue to have access to healthy affordable foods.

The largest nutrition assistance program in the United States is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—sometimes known as food stamps—with the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs also among the largest. These programs have become even more critical during the current pandemic, but pending changes to those programs would fundamentally change how they are run and who has access to them.

I spoke with Giridhar Mallya, senior policy officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), to better understand how recent coronavirus relief legislation impacts SNAP and school meals, as well as some of the longer-term proposals in both areas.

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A Holistic Approach to State Policymaking That Strengthens Families by Advancing Equity

Dec 16, 2019, 1:00 PM, Posted by Monica Hobbs Vinluan

A multi-state laboratory explores the interconnectedness of programs and policies to find ways for all families to thrive.

Kids jumping on an interactive exhibit at a museum.

Families don’t live in silos—one silo for health care, one for child care support, and yet another for food assistance. They need all those things—and more—to build strong and healthy futures for their children.

That’s why at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), we're supporting a multi-state laboratory for advancing policies that strengthen families across a range of issues. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) is the hub for this initiative. We are administering $2.65 million in grants to state-based organizations working to ensure that children and families get the support and resources needed to raise healthy kids through policy and systems change.

That means instead of addressing one issue at a time—e.g., child care supports or family leave—an array of issues are being addressed simultaneously. These include child care and family leave and minimum wage and job training and other policies that can help families get ahead. These policy levers are interconnected, playing off each other, which is why a holistic approach is needed to make real progress in families’ lives.

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Policy Should Never Put a Child’s Health at Risk

Sep 26, 2019, 9:30 AM, Posted by Donald F. Schwarz

Mother bottle feeding her young son.

When I was a full-time pediatrician, I worked at a practice in the City of Philadelphia whose primary patients were teenage mothers and their children. Most of their parents were low-income with little to no outside support. Their lives were hard. Very hard. Many of the parents (grandparents to the newborns) were forced to choose between paying rent some weeks and having enough food to feed their children and grandchildren.  

I remember in particular one mother and her infant son who came to see me after he was born. She was scared because the baby was having trouble gaining weight, due in large part to the family not being able to afford much food. His grandmother was worried; given all the research showing how critical nutrition is to developing brains, I was concerned as well. Fortunately, the practice I worked in was a collaborative one, meaning that not only did we doctors work side-by-side with nurse practitioners, but also closely with social workers. And one of our social workers immediately went to work to get this family, in which the grandmother—who was the head of the household—worked full-time, enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

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How San Antonio, Texas, Fixed Its Broken Truancy System

Jul 17, 2019, 11:45 AM, Posted by John W. Bull

Bexar County once handled 36,000 truancy cases a year. Now students get one-on-one help to boost their attendance, and truancy cases have dwindled.

Texas was the last of two states—Wyoming being the other—that treated truancy as a crime. Students and their parents faced court fines, and if penalties went unpaid, teen truants could be cuffed by constables and sent to jail.

None of this made any sense to me when 10 years ago, as San Antonio’s presiding municipal judge, I inadvertently began the process of changing the system across the state.

I had heard from a friend who handled attendance in one of the largest of San Antonio’s 16 school districts. This assistant principal was concerned because truancy cases filed in January could not be heard by justices of the peace until October. At the time, Bexar County, which includes the city of San Antonio, handled about 36,000 truancy cases a year.

I wondered why we weren’t figuring out why students were not going to school—as opposed to just jamming them into the school-to-prison pipeline. Troubled by that question and knowing there was nothing to preclude a municipal judge from hearing truancy cases, I stepped in to work through the backlog with another judge. We processed 1,200 cases over three weeks.

I could immediately tell the system was definitely broken.

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Helping Dads Support Their Kids’ Health and Development

Jun 13, 2019, 1:00 PM, Posted by Jamie Bussel

Research shows that children and moms benefit when dads are actively engaged in their kids’ health and development. A new study examines barriers that make it difficult for some fathers to be involved and how to overcome them.

Dad holding his smiling daughter.

This Sunday, families around the country will celebrate Father’s Day and pay tribute to the special caregivers in their lives. It’s a time when I find myself feeling especially grateful for all the positive ways my own father has influenced my life and the crucial role my husband plays in raising our daughters.

I also think about the many dads I have been lucky enough to meet throughout my life. These are the special dads who are determined to make sure that all kids--both their own and others--have every opportunity to grow up healthy and happy.

One such father who stands out for me is Steve Spencer. I learned of Steve a couple of years ago when he represented his home state of Oregon at Zero to Three’s Strolling Thunder event. The event brings together parents from across the country to meet their Members of Congress and share what babies and families need to thrive. As a single dad raising two boys, Steve is a knowledgeable and passionate advocate for the kind of supportive services parents rely on to give their kids the healthiest start.

Steve put it best when he outlined the day-to-day realities of parenting, "It's really hard to put focus in trying to figure out a way to keep the apartment and get food in these kids' bellies and so on and so forth on top of taking care of him [his four-month-old son] and not sleeping."

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