Priority Policy

Head Start

Giving children the boost they need to perform in school and maintain a healthy weight.

Head Start is a comprehensive early childhood education program that helps prepare more than one million low-income children under the age of 5 for school every year by providing education, health, and social services. It began as a program for preschoolers in the 1960s and was expanded in the 1990s with the creation of Early Head Start, which serves pregnant women, infants and toddlers. The federal government provides funding and oversight to local agencies that administer the program. For FY 2018, Head Start and Early Head Start received $9.85 billion, a $610 million increase over FY 2017 funding.

In 2016, updated Head Start Performance Standards took effect, the first major changes to the standards since the 1970s. The revised standards require Head Start programs–which participate in the Child and Adult Care Food Program or the federal school meals programs–to actively engage in obesity prevention in the classroom and through family partnerships. The new standards require healthy snacks, culturally appropriate nutrition services, easily accessible drinking water throughout the day, and the integration of physical activity into the daily curriculum.


The following recommendations regarding Head Start come from State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America, 2018 produced by Trust for America’s Health and RWJF.

For the U.S. Department of Education:

• Issue regular guidance covering programs, such as early childhood programs, supported through ESSA that encourage healthy eating, opportunities for physical activity, limits on screen time and other activities that promote health.

For state and local policymakers:

• States should follow expert guidance and adopt and implement best practices—including by investment in Quality Improvement Rating Systems—for nutrition, activity and screen time requirements and regulations covering child care and day care settings.

• States should support access for low-income families to targeted home visiting and community-based programs
that provide families with resources and connections to parenting education, nutrition programs and other services.

see all recommendations

healthy changes in the Head Start program in Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

A 2010 New Mexico Department of Health report found that nearly 30 percent of entering kindergartners in the state were overweight or obese; of those, more than one-third were American Indian. The report spurred healthy changes in the Head Start program in Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. The Taos Pueblo Head Start/My First School, built an indoor organic garden room, where the 56 students, along with parents and staff, can grow fresh produce. The Head Start program now purchases all of its food from a local organic grocery store or the Pueblo’s own Red Willow Farmers Market. Taos Pueblo Head Start has been recognized by the Healthy Kids Healthy Childcare Initiative–which trains childcare providers to instill healthy habits in early childhood programs–as a model program due to its innovative teaching strategies that incorporate healthy eating and active living lessons into the daily classroom routine.

Read more

Head start effective in reducing BMI

One study examining the effectiveness of a six-month educational intervention to promote healthy eating and physical activity among Head Start staff, parents, and children demonstrated significant reductions in body mass index (BMI) and in the proportion of obese children and adults. The intervention included interactive lessons covering nutrition and food safety; a health-needs assessment for youth; distribution of nutrition information newsletters to parents; and instruction to Head Start teachers on reviewing and reinforcing monthly nutrition lessons. At the conclusion of the intervention, 28 percent of participants that had obesity had improved to overweight or healthy weight status.

See research

Barriers to obesity prevention in Head start

“Barriers to Obesity Prevention in Head Start,” a 2010 report from Healthy Eating Research and Active Living Research, highlighted the challenges Head Start programs face with respect to implementing obesity prevention policies and practices. Challenges included lack of time, money, and knowledge. The report also discussed cultural barriers between parents and Head Start staff about perceptions on childhood obesity. The authors recommended that the federal government provide additional resources to help program staff address and prevent childhood obesity among enrollees, with a particular focus on providing healthy meals and snacks–which were ultimately incorporated into the updated Head Start performance standards finalized in 2016.

Read report

Fast Facts


Children who received 60 minutes of outdoor play time during Head Start programs were 42% less likely to be obese at the end of the Head Start year compared to children who played outside less often.

Read more


Shifting Head Start classes from half-day to full-day can significantly reduce the risk of being obese – by at least 25% in some cases.

Read more


A 2016 survey of Head Start program directors and health managers found that 86% of health managers identified obesity among children as a major health concern for the program.

Read more

Originally posted in August 2018.