An initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Policy Changes to Prevent Childhood Obesity

School Meals WIC


October 8th, 2021


Childhood obesity is driven by systemic, interconnected factors, so policy solutions must be broad and systems-based too. Some solutions are focused on improving access to healthy, affordable food for all children and families. Others go beyond those immediate factors, strengthening supports so that parents and caregivers have the resources they need to help all children grow up healthy.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation offers the following recommendations as federal, state, and local leaders work to respond to the pandemic and create long-lasting changes that will help all children grow up healthy and at a healthy weight.



1. Make universal school meals permanent and provide resources to ensure every child has access to a consistent source of healthy meals.

Why it Matters:

  • School lunches are 41% healthier since the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act in 2012.1
  • More students – 61% – participated in school lunches at schools that served the healthiest meals than at those that served unhealthy meals.2
  • A review of 47 studies on the impact of universal school meals found benefits to school meal participation, diet quality, and food security.3

2. Extend eligibility for WIC to postpartum mothers through the first two years after the birth of a baby and to children through age six. Doing so would align with participation in school meal programs so that there is no gap in support.

Why It Matters:

  • Nationwide, 7.8 million people participated in WIC in 2018.4
  • The average monthly value of the WIC food benefit for kids is $31.78.5
  • The national obesity rate has dropped among children participating in WIC, from 15.9% in 2010 to 14.4% in 2018.6

3. Extend and expand other programs that are pulling families out of poverty and reducing food insecurity, such as the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC).

Why It Matters:

  • The expanded CTC provides $3,600 for children under age 6.7
  • Making current changes to the tax credit permanent could cut child poverty by 50% in 11 states.8
  • Food insecurity dropped by 3 percentage points in households with children after the first CTC payments arrived.9

4. The federal government, and state governments which have not done so, must close the Medicaid coverage gap. Doing so would improve health outcomes and reduce racial and ethnic disparities.

Why It Matters:

  • Twelve states refuse to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid.10
  • More than 2 million uninsured adults are not covered by Medicaid in the 12 non-expansion states.11
  • In 2019, 60% of people in the coverage gap were people of color.12

5. The federal government should develop a consistent approach to collecting timely data on obesity rates, including data organized by race, ethnicity, and income level, in order to ensure prevention strategies are grounded in evidence and center equity.

Why It Matters:

  • The obesity rate among American Indian/Alaska Native youth ages 10-17 is 28.7%, the highest of any of the five racial and ethnic groups included in the National Survey of Children’s Health.13
  • The obesity rate among youth from families in the lowest income bracket is 23.1%, compared to 8.1% among those in the highest income bracket.14
  • The obesity rate among Asian youth is 8.1%, the lowest of any racial or ethnic group studied.15

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