The U.S. Federal food and nutrition safety net is a patchwork of programs in which program eligibility depends on age, State of residence, disability, and work status. Children reaching age 5 and entering kindergarten experience a significant transition in the food and nutrition programs for which they qualify. Before age 5, children are eligible for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). However, WIC eligibility ends at 60 months (5 years) of age. Children cannot access school-based meal programs, such as the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), until they enter kindergarten. Consequently, children who reach age 5 before they enter kindergarten fall into a significant and growing gap in food and nutrition program coverage.
WIC provides supplemental food assistance, nutrition education, and health referrals to low-income pregnant and postpartum women and to children under age 5 who are at nutritional risk. Eligibility rules require that a household’s gross income be below 185 percent of the Federal poverty line or that a household participates in Medicaid. In 2016, a sizable number of 4-year-old American children—approximately 900,000—received WIC benefits. WIC’s impact has been well documented. Studies show WIC participation decreased preterm birth, increased birth weight, reduced infant mortality rates for Blacks, and increased intake of three of the four key nutrients in early childhood. Participation in the WIC program has been also associated with improved cognitive and behavioral outcomes at home and in school.
Once children enter school, they can receive school-based food and nutrition programs such as the NSLP. Upward of 97 percent of public schools participate in the program; approximately 75 percent of eligible children participate. In fiscal year 2011, over 31 million students received a free or reduced-price lunch daily. Empirical studies evaluating the NSLP’s effects on school outcomes are limited and, among those, estimates of individual impacts of participation in NSLP vary. Whereas some researchers find no evidence of positive effects on children, others find positive effects, including obesity prevention and improved performance in math and reading.
The coverage gap length is the duration of the gap in program eligibility between WIC and NSLP. Because eligibility for kindergarten is determined by month of birth and the State of residence, similar children who may miss the cutoff date in one State are able to begin kindergarten in another State, which makes the coverage gap length subject to exogenous variation.
This study used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010-11 (ECLS-K: 2011), a nationally representative sample of children who attended kindergarten during the 2010-11 school year. The ECLS-K gathers data in the fall and spring during the kindergarten year.
Findings of the study suggest that the coverage gap between WIC and the NSLP has an effect on children’s learning outcomes. Specifically, results show that, in the fall, an additional month in the coverage gap between WIC and NSLP decreases math scores by 0.06 of a standard deviation, reading scores by 0.13 of a standard deviation, and externalizing problem behaviors by 0.03 of a standard deviation. However, all of these effects faded out by spring of the kindergarten year once children were exposed to the NSLP.
Effects are additive across coverage gap months; effect sizes in this range are considered moderate. Moreover, findings in this study are consistent with those concerning other early childhood interventions. Finally, results are robust across sample sizes and multiple specification tests.
These results provide guidance on how nutrition policies unfold in children’s lives to affect their well-being. By examining the effects of transitions in food and nutrition program coverage at school entry, this study addresses important questions with immediate relevance for nutrition policy and child well-being.