State Agency Perspectives on Administering the CACFP
December 4, 2023
A study was published in October 2023 by the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health to explore federal and state policies and practices that support or discourage CACFP participation among child care centers. The report approaches:
- Program outreach and administration
- Barriers that make CACFP participation challenging
- Recommendations to expand access to CACFP for eligible providers
Why It Matters
Most young American children do not meet recommendations for healthy development and growth. Child care programs can help promote better diet quality for young children by offering healthy meals to children in their care.
The potential reach of child care programs is substantial as most young children receive regular nonparental care. CACFP-participating programs serve more nutritious foods, help reduce food insecurity for young children, and improve children’s dietary intake compared with what they eat at home.
Despite these benefits, CACFP is not used by many eligible child care providers. Ensuring that eligible providers access the program’s federally funded resources is important. It is critical to understand both the extent to which CACFP reaches eligible providers and whether there are successful approaches that can be used to establish equitable and consistent program access.
Program Outreach and Recruitment
- Most states reported conducting some outreach to nonparticipating child care providers to inform them about the CACFP.
- At least half of the state agencies used active strategies to recruit new programs, with the most frequent one being emails with information about CACFP to newly licensed child care programs or preparing and distributing CACFP factsheets or brochures.
- When trying to recruit new centers, most CACFP agencies highlighted meal reimbursements as an important participation benefit. Another program benefit highlighted in recruitment was training opportunities available to the program participants.
- A quarter of the agencies talked directly about the role of CACFP in reducing food insecurity and supporting child nutrition.
- Some states also spoke about how their state had a licensing requirement to follow the CACFP meal patterns for all child care centers, irrespective of CACFP participation, and how they leveraged this for recruitment by communicating to centers that they could join the program to benefit from meal reimbursements and free training because they were already required by licensing to meet the CACFP meal patterns.
- 5 states reported highlighting CACFP participation as an indicator of a quality child care program and using CACFP as a great marketing tool to recruit families.
- State Agencies reported activities with their state licensing agency to distribute information about CACFP to newly licensed programs and recruit eligible applicants.
- A third of the interviewed agencies had partnerships with advocacy groups to promote CACFP access.
- Several states highlighted the role of sponsoring agencies in conducting outreach and recruitment: “Most of our participation rate is due to our sponsors.” Sponsoring agencies work as intermediaries between child care providers and CACFP and greatly reduce the burden of program participation.
- Three-quarters of the states reported using a prescreener or a preregistration form to identify eligible programs, save time for ineligible centers, and direct child care homes to CACFP sponsoring agencies.
- 10 states reported requiring a minimum period of operating a licensed child care center, varying in length from 3 months to 1 year.
- About half of the interviewed states had an application form available online.
- Almost two-thirds of the states reported actively working with applicants to guide them through the application process and offer “handholding”.
- The duration of the application process varied widely across states, from 1 to 6−8 months, with the average approval rates or percentage of centers that apply for CACFP and get accepted each year ranging from “very low” to 100%.
- Multiple states do not have any sponsoring agencies for independent centers or have only 1 sponsor.
- Only 4 states reported looking to expand the availability of sponsors for independent centers.
- When sponsoring agencies were available, several state agencies reported encouraging centers to participate in CACFP through a sponsor, particularly for new programs.
- The most frequently mentioned barrier to participation was having very burdensome paperwork, as reported by almost 80% of the interviewed agencies.
- The second most reported common barrier was center staff shortages. The state agency employees talked about low wages and significant stresses on child care employees.
- Half of the interviewed states highlighted the considerable stresses and challenges of running the small business of a child care center, in which owners are often also center directors who wear many hats. They often do not have the training to optimize complex administrative tasks and complete paperwork.
- The heavy workload, significant amount of paperwork, and administrative capacity needed to meet all program requirements were acknowledged by multiple state agencies.
- Another commonly mentioned barrier was due to the federal requirement that all CACFP-participating child care programs demonstrate financial viability, maintain adequate administrative capacity, and have internal controls for accountability.
- Some states cited additional requirements of state or local health agencies as further barriers to CACFP participation.
- Centers that lack the capacity to prepare meals on-site and lack of food service vendors that could provide CACFP-compliant meals were another reported barrier.
Strategies to Support CACFP-participating Centers
- The most frequent explanation for the strengths of their CACFP programs, cited by two-thirds of the interviewed agencies, was the quality of their training capabilities, including access to online training. The states felt their investments in modernizing and optimizing provider training were paying off.
- Another important support reported by several agencies was the dedication of agency staff who were passionate about CACFP and feeding children. Most states reported a low turnover rate among their employees.
- Several states had additional policies or incentives aimed at expanding access to CACFP, particularly for children from households with low incomes.
Recommendations to Adress Challenges in CACFP
- The most frequently reported recommendation that also reflected the most common barrier to participation was to decrease and streamline paperwork for program participants.
- There were frequent suggestions for CACFP to implement a version of the Community Eligibility Provision for low-income areas to reduce the burden of collecting income eligibility forms, avoid variation in attendance and negative effects on eligibility for for-profit centers, and increase access to better child nutrition in more areas.
- A related recommendation highlighted by several states was to drop the 25% threshold for for-profit centers.
- Additional suggestions focused on connecting small centers with sponsoring agencies to relieve administrative burdens on small businesses.
- State agencies were interested in obtaining more funding to increase their resources, including hiring more registered dietitians and staff dedicated specifically to CACFP and expanding the program.
For more information, read the full study: State Agency Perspectives on successes and Challenges of Administering the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The study was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior and written by Tatiana Andreyeva, Melissa McCann, Judy Prager, and Erica L. Kenney with the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health.