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Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)

Kids at a table eating food.
PRIORITY POLICY

Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)

Obesity prevention is a lifelong effort

The Child and Adult Food Care Program (CACFP) provides federal funding to states to reimburse providers for the cost of providing nutritious meals and snacks to children and adults in their care. More than 4.3 million children and 130,000 adults participate each year, and providers (e.g., early care and education providers and out-of-school time providers) must serve meals that meet minimum nutrition standards to receive reimbursement. Many of the waivers and flexibilities USDA has issued in response to COVID-19 apply to CACFP as well.


Updated nutrition standards for CACFP took effect in 2017, the first major changes in nearly 50 years. These standards require more whole grains, a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, fewer added sugars, and less saturated fat. A health impact assessment predicted that the changes should increase children’s intake of vegetables and whole grains, reduce their consumption of grain-based desserts, and improve their overall health. Research has shown that participating in CACFP moderately increases consumption of milk and vegetables among children, and may reduce the prevalence of overweight.

Head Start is a comprehensive early childhood education program that helps prepare children for school by providing education, health, and social services. It reaches more than 1 million children under the age of 5 in families furthest from economic opportunity every year. Early Head Start serves children under age 3 and pregnant women. Head Start and Early Head Start programs participate in either CACFP or the federal school meals programs.


Standards that went into effect in 2016 require Head Start and Early Head Start programs to provide healthy snacks, culturally appropriate nutrition services, easily accessible drinking water throughout the day, and the integration of physical activity into the daily curriculum. Research shows that children participating in Head Start are more likely to have healthy eating patterns than similar children who do not participate.

COVID-19 Response

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed in March 2020, provides $750 million in grants to all Head Start programs to help them respond to coronavirus-related needs of children and families, including making up for lost learning time. The Office of Head Start has also provided participating programs with numerous flexibilities during the pandemic. For instance, they are not holding programs accountable for assessments that are not possible to achieve with social distancing guidelines and various reporting requirements have been waived to reduce administrative burden.

Recent laws have extended the Community Eligibility Provision in CACFP, and extended P-EBT benefits to cover children in childcare settings, not just in schools. Both changes should help ensure more children have access to healthy foods in child care settings through CACFP.

Recommendations

• CACFP should be expanded to allow the option of a third meal service.

• CACFP should continue streamlining program operations and paperwork to allow for easier enrollment for providers to serve as sponsors of the program.

• CACFP should continue to fund nutrition and wellness education and program efforts.

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Featured Studies and Resources

Report

New Rule Should Improve the Nutritional Quality of CACFP-Funded Meals & Snacks

A 2017 health impact assessment by Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concluded that the updated nutrition standards will have a positive overall impact on children’s health by improving the nutritional quality of CACFP-funded meals and snacks and increasing children’s intake of whole grains and vegetables.

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Study

CACFP Participants Consume More Key Nutrients

Studies show that children in CACFP receive meals that are more nutritious  to those served to children in comparable child care settings without CACFP. Children enrolled in CACFP had significantly higher intakes of key nutrients (like protein, vitamins, and minerals), consumed more fruits and vegetables, and consumed fewer fats and sweets.

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Analysis

Children with Access to CACFP More Likely to be Healthy

An analysis by Children’s HealthWatch of children ages 1-3 found that those with access to CACFP were less likely to be in fair or poor health, less likely to be hospitalized, and more likely to have a healthy weight and height for their age compared with children whose meals were brought from home.

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Fast Facts

2B

In fiscal year 2018, CACFP provided more than 2 billion total meals and snacks to children and adults.

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29

29 states encourage enhanced nutrition standards that go beyond federal requirements in their CACFP program.

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23

23 states and Washington, D.C. connect their Early Childhood Education licensing standards to CACFP so that the state licensing requirements update automatically to correspond with any updates to CACFP.

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Data to Share

Updated nutrition standards for CACFP meals are predicted to reduce the risk of being obese or overweight among CACFP-enrolled children, with the potential to provide the greatest benefit to Latino and Black children in families with low income.
Among low-income children, CACFP participation moderately increases consumption of milk and vegetables, and may also reduce the prevalence of overweight and underweight.
19 states promote or provide specific early care and education obesity prevention interventions to providers who participate in CACFP.