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Reading is the road to success

Reading is the foundation for a child’s education. Without strong reading skills, it’s harder for any child to succeed.

Research has shown that reading proficiently by the end of third grade is a major milestone on a child’s path to graduation. This is the time when children make the critical transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Parents and caring adults are essential when it comes to strengthening a child’s reading skills and nurturing a love of reading outside of the classroom.

One of the easiest and most effective ways parents and caring adults can promote literacy is to read with children regularly. Words are everywhere—in newspapers, street signs, buildings, and music—so it’s easier than you think to make reading fun and a part of your everyday lifestyle.

In fact, as a part of the all-new Target Read With Me SM initiative, which aims to help more U.S. children read proficiently by the end of third grade, Target and the Search Institute have teamed up to provide you some easy tips to engage children in reading throughout your busy day.

Bring Out the Books

Why keep kids' books tucked away in their rooms? Make them visible and easily accessible, so there's always encouragement to read. Reserve a low shelf in the pantry, or make a basket full of books your kitchen table centerpiece. Each time you read aloud together, you nourish your kids' growing minds. Studies have shown that preschoolers who have frequent read-aloud time with their parents have stronger language skills later in life—including higher reading, spelling, and IQ scores at age 13.

Hit the Library

Show your kids that reading is a priority in your family by including the library on your list of errands. Keep a book bag in the car, so it's easy to carry new books and return the old. Kids will love the chance to make their own decisions by choosing books that interest them. Studies show that when kids have fun reading books that match their reading levels and interests, they become better readers. They'll be excited to tell you who invented bubble gum or how fast the fastest car goes.

Family Reading Night

Instead of family movie night, make family activities more engaging and educational by reading to your child. Allow your child to pick a favorite book that you can read together, and engage your little one by describing all of the pictures that are on each page. By reading together, you and your child will learn and discover new books and subjects. Making reading time a regular family activity communicates the importance—and the fun—of reading.

Are your kids ready for a cell phone?

—Jason Alderman

If your preteen child hasn't hit you up yet for a cell phone, you're among a rare breed indeed. Studies have found that roughly 70 percent of 11- to 14-year-olds now use cell phones. Closer to home, our 10-year-old has been hounding my wife and me for months to get his own phone.

My initial reaction was, "No way." But upon investigation, I see why many parents eventually give in. Here are a few pros and cons for giving your preteen a phone and some safeguards you can take:

• Safety. Anyone who's ever had a flat tire or gotten lost can attest to cell phones' safety advantages. On the flip side, unless you install parental controls, your child could access inappropriate content or be more vulnerable to bullying and predatory behavior.

• Expense. Cell phone use, including calls, text messaging, Web browsing, and application downloads, can be wildly expensive. You have two payment options:

* Prepaid plan—buy minutes "pay-as-you-go." Plans vary widely in terms of fees and per-minute calling and text rates. Advantages: No locked-in service contract; you know exactly how many minutes they're using. Disadvantages: Parental controls usually don't apply; phones are more expensive than under a service contract plan.

* Family plan—sometimes it's cheaper to add a phone to your existing plan. Some plans allow unlimited calls/texts between friends and family or those using the same carrier. Advantages: Generally cheaper if your kids make lots of calls/texts; most allow parental controls. Disadvantages: Parental controls may cost extra; some plans don't allow usage caps, so undisciplined kids may rack up large bills; you're tied to a service contract.

• Parental controls. One of the best ways to protect your kids is to subscribe to your carrier's parental controls plan. Plan features vary widely, but look for these when comparison shopping:

* Cost (free to $4.99 a month).

* Ability to cap phone minutes and text messages.

* Allow emergency calls, even if over monthly usage allowance.

* Cap and/or block entertainment downloads (costly/inappropriate ringtones, music, video, etc.)

* Block mature content Web sites from Internet-enabled phones.

* Restrict time-of-day usage (e.g., block during school hours or after bedtime).

* Block calls/texts from specific or unknown numbers (helps prevent stalking, bullying, and inappropriate contact).

* Track your child's physical location (requires GPS-enabled phone and typically costs $5 to $10 a month).

Parental control programs generally are not available with prepaid plans. And since no filtering tool is completely foolproof, it's important to regularly discuss safety issues with your kids. Make sure they're comfortable coming to you with any questions or details of inappropriate contact they've received.

Not every child is ready for cell phone responsibilities. Set ground rules, and be prepared to withhold privileges if they cross boundaries, such as not abiding school regulations, exceeding curfews or usage limits, using the phone to bully others, repeatedly losing or damaging the phone, etc. And make sure they kick in part of their allowance to help pay.

With my son, it's not a question of "if" but instead of "when." And when the time is right, he'll bear the costs of the handset and adding a line to our family plan. This, of course, will allow him to hound me remotely for the latest must-have item.

Flash in the Pan:
Don't touch my muffins!

—Ari LeVaux

Rarely in our history have food politics so dominated the national spotlight. Two food-related bills are currently circling the legislative drain, and their backers are running out of time to get them signed by the end of the current lame-duck session because once the new Congress takes over, all bets are off.

The so-called food safety bill passed the Senate November 30 on a vote of 73-25—a level of bipartisan agreement rarely seen of late. Even so, the bill, en-route to Obama's desk, was taken hostage by a congressional contingent sworn to prevent anything else from happening until tax cuts for the wealthy are extended. Thanks to the discovery of a procedural error, they're poised to send the bill back for proper processing, followed by another round of new debate that many fear would kill the bill.

Meanwhile, the food safety bill's little brother, the so-called school lunch bill, passed the House 264-157 December 2 (it passed the Senate last summer) and awaits a date with Obama's pen. Given his wife has made children's nutrition a priority, the smart money expects him to sign it.

But after years of wrangling, the bill is a mere ghost of what was originally proposed. "Two years ago, we started out very idealistic," says Dr. Susan Rubin, who teamed up with Slow Food USA on a campaign, called "Time for Lunch," that worked to get the bill passed.

"We wanted a dollar more per day, per kid, in funding because that's what we thought it would cost to feed kids properly. And now, we're celebrating an increase of six cents."

While it's a smaller increase than they'd hoped for, it's still a bigger increase than school kitchens have had in more than 60 years (not counting adjustments for inflation).

In addition to increased funding, the bill also increases the efficiency of the money it spends. Section 205 of the bill bans certain accounting practices by which wealthy schools have been accessing money intended for low-income students. Getting the kids of families who can afford it to pay their school lunch's true worth—about $2.30 per meal—will save the program a lot of money. Section 205 also prevents government reimbursement program money from being spent on snacks sold outside of the lunch line and mandates the creation of standards to regulate foods sold in schools outside of the subsidized meals. This includes the food and beverages sold in school vending machines and a class of school foods called "a la carte" options—things like bags of chips and cupcakes with the extra-thick frosting—which are sold alongside the subsidized meals, but aren't subsidized themselves.

The school lunch bill also calls for an update of the nutrition standards used to create meals funded by the school lunch program. "Right now, for example, USDA standards don't promote whole grains. You can be sure the new standards will," one optimistic school nutrition professional told me, requesting anonymity.

While there are many ideas about how best to feed children, there's little debate that water is the best drink. The bill mandates access to free drinking water in all schools.

"No child should be forced to choose between buying a Coca Cola product and being thirsty," says Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA.

A big chunk of the bill, $375 million, will be divided among the states as grants to fund nutrition education and anti-obesity efforts. Forty million will fund research on food-related childhood health issues. And another $40 million will be allotted to farm-to-school programs, especially in schools with high populations of low-income students.

Farm-to-school advocates are pleased. Forty million might not sound like a lot of money in terms of the federal budget, but according to Viertel, "That will start a lot of really great farm-to-school pilot projects." Unlike, say, a cruise missile, a farm-to-school program can be built for just a few thousand dollars.

One nagging string attached to the bill is that more than $2 billion—about half its annual budget—is currently earmarked to come out of the food stamp budget. The president has promised to find another source for this money, and here is where the strong arms of Michelle, frying pan in hand, will help ensure he does.

Despite the bill's bipartisan support, Fox News has been harassing the bill with fabricated concerns that it "could ban bake sales at schools."

What the bill does do is state that bake sales and fundraisers could fall under regulation if they become so frequent that a significant portion of students' calories are coming from such foods, a point that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack went to pains to make in a widely circulated letter. Nonetheless, days later, Fox & Friends cohosts kept the "bake sale ban" narrative going, even after a guest correctly pointed out that the bill does not ban bake sales. Later, Fox & Friends show cohost Gretchen Carlson teased another segment on the bill by saying, "Don't touch my muffins! A new bill headed to President Obama's desk would give the government the power to limit school bake sales? Is that any of the government's business?"

Sarah Palin chimed in, via Twitter, criticizing the "school cooking ban" as she seized the opportunity to point out another instance that the federal government wants to make our decisions for us.

Of course, the ones who rake in the most money on school fundraisers, from the Girl Scouts to the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers (AFRDS), have publicly come out in support of the bill. Using the manufactured bake sale issue to kill a bill that aims to curb children's hunger and thirst is the height of cynicism.

I came of culinary age exposed to a Reagan-era school lunch program that famously considered catsup a vegetable, and some of my memories of the food itself are disturbing. Sometimes I ate it, but even then, I regarded school lunch as a distinctly low-grade reflection on humanity. Luckily for me, my parents were usually able to pack me a lunch. Luckily for a lot of kids, the school lunch program and public school nutrition in general are getting a much-needed upgrade.





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