Mother and son at Farmers Market.

This brief is one in a series of six on key early childhood issues for state policymakers. The series is designed to assist new state leaders in promoting informed policy decision-making in states to give kids a healthy start in life.


The Issue

Healthy food and nutrition are essential for children’s cognitive and physical development, setting the foundation for lifelong health. However, across the nation, many families struggle with hunger and access to healthy foods to support their health.

Why It’s Important

Ensuring all families have access to healthy foods and adequate nutrition is foundational for child development, educational, and health outcomes. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends babies be breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life; however, research shows breastfeeding rates are lower than recommended for all families and particularly among racially and ethnically diverse families and low-income households. Nearly 1 in 5 children live in a home without adequate access to food, and the same proportion are at an unhealthy weight. Nutrition programs that support breastfeeding and improve access to healthy foods for pregnant women, infants, and young children can improve overall health and help prevent lifelong health complications including obesity.

Considerations for State Policymakers

The federal Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program (WIC), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and child care nutrition programs are designed to support children and families to access healthy and nutritious foods. In 2017, WIC served 7.3 million women, infants and children monthly and SNAP supported 42 million individuals during the fiscal year. In addition to efforts to administer these federal programs, states have acted to ensure healthy foods are available and accessible where young children and families live, learn, and work.

1.    Support Breastfeeding Moms

Breastfed infants have fewer health complications and breastfeeding provides both short- and long-term benefits for infants and mothers. States can act to support breastfeeding mothers through policies to:

  • Promote breastfeeding through public health education campaigns for families and technical assistance and performance-based reimbursement for clinicians and hospitals. In 2018, 25 percent of all births were in facilities that were designated as baby friendly because of their breastfeeding supporting policies.
  • Enable access to breast milk in child-care centers since many mothers return to work while still breastfeeding. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have regulations for child care centers that allow or encourage breastfeeding.
  • Help working moms continue to breastfeed by giving them legal protections in the workplace. Twenty-nine states have laws related to breastfeeding in the workplace. Minnesota requires employers to provide unpaid break time and a clean and convenient place, other than a bathroom or toilet stall, for working mothers to express milk.

2.    Maximize Access to Nutrition Assistance for Low-Income Families

The federal government pays the full cost of WIC and SNAP benefits, but states share in the costs of administering the programs. States have acted to ensure efficient administration of the program and pursued innovations to better meet the needs of residents including efforts to:

  • Streamline enrollment and administration by aligning eligibility requirements, enabling auto-enrollment in one program when meeting criteria for another, and improving benefit application and eligibility determination processes. Such approaches can lower administrative costs, improve customer experience, and increase access to benefits.
  • Expand access to more families because many families with incomes above the federal nutrition program eligibility levels can struggle to afford nutritious food. Illinois has increased the income eligibility for SNAP from the federal floor of 130 percent to 165 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). Fourteen states extend eligibility to 200 percent of FPL and thirty-four states have eliminated asset tests.
  • Support job training and economic mobility by leveraging SNAP to connect recipients to educational opportunities, job training, and job search services. In Oregon, people receiving SNAP can enroll in the Oregon Community College System and get help to cover the cost of attending school. Education coordinators and employment specialists support students to obtain employment in high-wage industries, including maritime welding and health care.

3.    Improve Access to High-Quality, Healthy Foods for Women and Young Children

Inadequate nutrition can lead to unhealthy weight and low levels of vitamins and minerals, which can negatively impact brain and immune system development. States are taking a variety of approaches to improve access to healthy foods for pregnant women and young children.

  • Provide nutrition education and support through state administered nutrition and early care and education programs, such as SNAP-Ed to increase the knowledge of residents about healthy food and nutrition. The Alabama WIC program has an app that provides healthy recipes, breastfeeding resources, and a link to the online nutrition education website.
  • Improve nutrition and prevent obesity in child-care and early education programs through licensing requirements, nutrition standards, quality rating systems, professional development, facility level interventions and the creation of healthy environments. For example, 34 states require these programs to offer meals that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines.
  • Offer incentives for healthy food purchases by allowing SNAP and WIC to be used at local farmers’ markets, supporting both families and local farmers, and providing subsidies for fruit and vegetables purchases. The federal Farm Bill provides funding for states to implement such programs, which have been shown to improve dietary quality. The South Carolina Healthy Bucks program provides vouchers to individuals who receive SNAP that match their spending on fresh fruits and vegetables at grocery stores and farmers’ markets up to $10.


About Ascend

Ascend at the Aspen Institute is a hub for breakthrough ideas and collaborations that move children and their parents toward educational success and economic security. Ascend takes a two-generation approach to their work—focusing on children and their parents together—and bring a gender and racial equity lens to their analysis. Learn more at