Food and nutrition assistance programs help children gain access to adequate amounts of nutritious food—reducing child hunger and food insecurity as well as promoting healthy development. Yet in California, enrollment varies widely across counties and across the main nutrition programs that serve children: CalFresh, popularly known as food stamps; the WIC program, which serves infants and preschool-age children; and school meals, which include lunch and often other meals. Increasing children’s enrollment in CalFresh and achieving healthier outcomes for Californians are priorities for the state. The governor’s January 2016 budget set a goal of enrolling 400,000 more eligible children in CalFresh over two years.
This report assesses children’s eligibility for CalFresh and eligible children’s participation in the three main nutrition programs to explore opportunities for improving enrollment and the benefits of higher enrollment. Key findings include:
- CalFresh has lower enrollment than free school meals and WIC. In 2015, 24 percent of all California children participated in CalFresh, while more than twice as many age-eligible children (51%) were enrolled in free school meals; 44 percent of infants and 34 percent of young children were enrolled in WIC.
- There is substantial potential to expand the impact of nutrition programs. We estimate that if all CalFresh-eligible children were fully enrolled in both CalFresh and either free school meals or WIC, these programs would reach 1.6 million more children.
- Infants and young children are better connected to nutrition programs. Among CalFresh-eligible children, we find that 12 percent of public school students participate in neither CalFresh nor free school meals—more than a quarter million school children (331,000). In contrast, only 4 percent of infants (21,000) and 9 percent of young children (87,000) are disconnected from both CalFresh and WIC.
- Higher participation in nutrition programs would lower child poverty. Among public school students living in poverty, we project that full participation in nutrition programs would increase family resources by 15 percent. Among infants and young children living in poverty, we project that family resources would increase by 9 percent following full participation in nutrition programs.
To some extent, lower CalFresh enrollment reflects more restrictive eligibility requirements. However, there is good reason to believe that more children participating in free school meals and WIC could be connected to CalFresh. Currently, most policies designed to integrate nutrition programs run from CalFresh to school meals. Building robust, two-way connections could help counties and the state better achieve the goals of these programs so more children have access to adequate, nutritious food. (Author abstract)