Child Nutrition Program Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic
June 2, 2023
CACFP Operations March through September 2020
In May 2023, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) published a report focused on Child Nutrition Program (CNP) operations during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, March through September 2020, including information on the nationwide waivers that FNS approved for use during that period. Key findings include:
- The number of children served meals decreased substantially in the spring of 2020; however, a significantly greater number of children received meals in summer 2020 than in previous summers.
- By September 2020, Child Nutrition Programs were serving more meals to more children.
- State agencies consistently reported that use of the COVID-19 Child Nutrition nationwide waivers improved services to children.
- State agencies and local program operators more frequently used the COVID-19 Child Nutrition nationwide waivers for SSO and SFSP than for NSLP, SBP, and CACFP from March through September 2020.
- Meal service generally moved outside of school and daycare buildings to meal sites in locations near children’s homes or where more children participated in Child Nutrition Programs, during this period.
- Operators used a variety of new and alternative meal delivery methods and options to serve children.
- The pandemic presented new operational and financial challenges for States and local program operators.
Programs Used to Provide Meals Changed
Child participation and meals served through CACFP dropped at the beginning of the pandemic, and then increased to some extent, nearing pre-pandemic levels by September 2020. Before the pandemic, about 90,000 family day care homes and 70,000 child care centers were participating in CACFP (Food and Nutrition Service 2020b). Although many child care outlets stopped serving CACFP meals during those months, the decrease in participation was less severe in that program. For example, from March to April 2020, the number of outlets serving CACFP meals decreased by almost 50 percent in the 43 States that provided these data.
Child Participation and Meals Served Across Programs Decrease Substantially
Consistent with the decrease in the number of school and child care buildings in which meal service was provided during spring 2020, the number of children participating in NSLP, SBP, and CACFP, and the number of meals served in those programs, also dropped substantially. While SSO and SFSP filled some of the gap, the number of children served and the total number of meals served in April and May fell far short of pre-pandemic levels.
About 3.5 million children participated in CACFP in March 2020, when CACFP data collection for this study began. In March, about 3 million children in child care centers participated in CACFP and about 400,000 in family day care homes. These numbers likely reflect a decline in child participation that had already begun due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Child participation in both child care centers and family day care homes further decreased in April to 1 million and 200,000, respectively. In May, child participation increased to 1.7 million in child care centers and 300,000 in family day care homes, as some child care outlets either re-opened or opened for meal service after initial school building closures.
The number of meals and snacks served follows a similar trend as child participation, both for child care centers and family day care homes. However, the percentage decrease in meals served in child care centers was more substantial than the decrease in meals served in family day care homes, likely reflecting that a greater proportion of child care centers closed or otherwise stopped serving meals during the early months of the pandemic.
SFSP, SSO, and CACFP Were the Primary Programs Used to Serve Meals in Summer 2020
In comparison to the April to May time period, there was also a modest increase in the total number of child care outlets operating CACFP during June and July 2020, with about 73,000 outlets operating CACFP in the 43 States that provided these data. However, the total outlets operating CACFP in those months was still far less than the 160,000 total outlets operating the program nationwide before the pandemic began.
CACFP Participation Fluctuated and Meals Served Started to Recover from Spring Lows
Child participation in CACFP fluctuated to some extent in the summer months. In May and June, about 1.7 million children participated in CACFP in child care centers and 300,000 children in family day care homes. In July, about 900,000 children participated in CACFP in child care centers and 300,000 in family day care homes.
At the same time, CACFP served more meals in the summer months, beginning to recover from spring lows, as shown in Figure II.10. This was consistent across outlet types, as the total number of meals served in child care centers and family day care homes was greater in both June and July than the number served in either April or May. One exception was the number of CACFP meals served in at-risk afterschool programs, which decreased slightly from May to June and then dropped by about five percent from June to July, consistent with at-risk afterschool programs pausing operations for the summer.
CACFP Participation and Meals Served Continued to Increase but had not Reached Pre-Pandemic levels by September
Although child participation in CACFP had not reached pre-pandemic levels by September 2020, total child participation in CACFP did increase each month from July through September. These increases were driven by changes in child participation in child care centers. Child participation in family day care homes changed minimally from July to September 2020.
By September 2020, the number of meals served in CACFP was approaching the number served in March. This increase is reflected across most outlet types: child care centers served 70 million meals in March 2020, and 69 million in September 2020; family day care homes served 18 million meals in March 2020 and 17 million meals in September 2020. Within the category of child care centers, the number of meals served in September in at-risk afterschool programs surpassed the number served in March, with about 15,000 breakfasts, 162,000 lunches, 8 million suppers, and 4 million snacks served that month. Head Start centers and emergency shelters showed the largest remaining deficit in number of meals served when comparing March and September.
Program Operations and Financial Challenges During the Pandemic
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, local program operators and State agencies faced a variety of operational challenges to providing meal service. About 50 percent of State agencies reported that more than half of SFAs operating NSLP, SBP, SSO, or SFSP, and institutions operating CACFP faced operational challenges providing meal service in the early months of the pandemic.
About 60 percent of State agencies reported that more than half of SFAs operating NSLP, SBP, SSO, or SFSP, and institutions operating CACFP, also faced financial challenges providing meal service in the early months of the pandemic. Fewer State agencies, about 40 percent, reported that more than half of non-SFA sponsors of SFSP faced financial challenges.
For more information, read Child Nutrition Program Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic, March through September 2020.