How to Keep Immigrant Moms and Babies from Going Hungry

A bright idea: government programs that reach out to immigrant parents, rather than alienating them, can keep kids from going hungry.

By Michelle Chen Sep 17, 2010

Children of immigrants are a rapidly growing population, and they’re growing up fast, often deprived of the resources they need to thrive. Luckily, there are a few federal nutrition programs for babies and young children that are more accessible to immigrant families than other public benefits. The Urban Institute looked at how immigrants and their children are using two critical programs, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which promotes healthier eating, local farmer’s markets and breastfeeding, and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which gives poor kids free meals. The research shows that immigrant families are disproportionately affected by economic hardship and thus many of their children qualify for nutrition programs. Children of undocumented parents in particular rely heavily on WIC food supports.

The largest growth in terms of number and share of children participating in WIC between 1997 and 2006 was among native-born children with unauthorized immigrant parents. In 1997, 366,000 native-born children with one or both unauthorized immigrant parents participated in WIC (6.8 percent of all participants), and by 2006, they had increased in number to 683,000 (11.7 percent of all participants).

The numbers underscore the intense need among families of undocumented immigrants, and perhaps extra dependency on child-focused programs because other mainstream adult programs are unavailable. More importantly, the researchers found that WIC and school lunch programs are structured to be more accessible than other federal programs, like TANF cash assistance:

Taken together, our findings suggest that immigrants’ fears about participating in TANF, SNAP [food stamps] and other programs subject to immigrant status limitations do not extend to benefits like WIC and NSLP that do not include these restrictions. Neither would it seem that unauthorized immigrant parents are afraid to apply for their citizen children (or their unauthorized immigrant children or even themselves for that matter) for WIC and NSLP. The different settings in which parents apply for these benefits–health clinics for WIC and schools for NSLP–appear to have insulated immigrants from the fears, concerns, and access barriers noted for welfare offices and other setting in which food stamp and TANF benefits are handled. The message that immigrant status is not a barrier to WIC or NSLP receipt appears to have gotten through to immigrant communities across the country–in states with smaller and rapidly growing populations as well as in the traditional immigrant destinations. WIC and NSLP appear to be important food assistance programs for a population of immigrant families that has suffered disproportionately from the current economic crisis… and whose other access to the nutritional safety net might be curbed.

In short, this is one of those rare federal assistance programs that works as it should, delivering resources to at-risk families, essentially according to need, no questions asked, thanks to relatively low barriers to access for immigrants. This might be the worst nightmare of anti-immigrant groups–more "anchor babies" overrunning public benefits programs. But the fact is, as a result of government programs that reach out to immigrant parents rather than alienating them, kids who would otherwise be malnourished are getting fed. Whatever your position on immigration reform, you’ve got to admit that keeping children on our soil from starving is good for America.