What is the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and why does it matter?

Bea-CACFPWhen I took my 7-month-old daughter, Beatrice, to daycare today I received an application for the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), the federally funded nutrition program which provides meals for children across the country in child care settings. After I glanced at the application packet and said hello to the other parents dropping their children off at daycare before heading to work, I noticed the perplexed expressions on the faces of some parents who were flipping through the pages of the CACFP application. The truth is, for most people (especially new parents), CACFP is not necessarily a commonly-known program even though it plays a vitally important role in providing millions of young children with nutritious meals and snacks every day. And while CACFP may not be the largest federal nutrition program (30.4 million kids participated in the National School Lunch Program in 2014 compared to 3.8 million children and adults who participated in CACFP in 2014) CACFP is most certainly a big deal for a lot of low-income families with young children.

So, what exactly is CACFP?

The US Department of Agriculture administers CACFP through grants to States. CACFP essentially provides cash reimbursement to Head Start programs, family day care, child care centers, homeless shelters, and afterschool programs for meals and snacks served to children. While adults are eligible (i.e., adult day care settings for adults with disabilities), the bulk of funding is directed towards younger children. Approximately two-thirds of the 2 billion meals per year served through the program go to public or private nonprofit child care centers and Head Start programs. CACFP reimburses centers at free, reduced-price, or paid rates for eligible meals and snacks served to enrolled children, targeting benefits to those children most in need.

Why does CACFP matter?

CACFP’s greatest strengths are the benefits it provides for children’s health and dietary intake. Research shows children who were receiving CACFP meals were 28 percent less likely to be in fair or poor health, 26 percent less likely to be hospitalized, and also significantly more likely to have a healthy weight and height for their age than children whose meals were supplied from home. A recent study among low-income children found that CACFP participation increased consumption of milk and vegetables, and reduced the prevalence of overweight and underweight among low-income preschoolers. Similarly, yet another study has shown preschool children with an unhealthy weight status (i.e., obese, overweight, or underweight) who participated in Head Start improved their BMIs by kindergarten when compared with non-participants – children in Head Start were less obese, less overweight, and less underweight. Simply put, CACFP is an important program that supports the health of infants and toddlers.

Why we should all turn our attention to this important program RIGHT NOW!

While CACFP has a relatively small but growing evidence base demonstrating its importance for young children’s diet quality, weight status, and overall health, more research is needed to explore these connections more thoroughly and to continue to strengthen the program. Additionally, understanding the importance and impact of CACFP is especially relevant right now as the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which authorizes all of the federal child nutrition programs (including National School Lunch Program, WIC and CACFP), is set to expire on September 30, 2015.

Congress now has an opportunity to strengthen our nation’s child nutrition assistance programs and provide millions of infants and children with access to nutritious food, setting a trajectory for lifelong health and well-being. Proposed changes to improve the program include:

  • Increasing reimbursement rates
  • Allowing three meals a day
  • Reducing area eligibility tests in order to streamline access to the program
  • Decreasing administrative burdens and paperwork
  • Continuing to fund CACFP at adequate levels

Like any parent, I want my daughter to have the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong. I hope our members of Congress take this opportunity, and work to make health and nutrition a reality for every child.