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NCA Report: The State of the Child and Adult Care Food Program

July 3, 2024

State of the CACFP Report_4x3

NCA surveyed its CACFP sponsoring organization and provider members to obtain feedback on their experiences with the food program. NCA analyzed information collected from the survey in the State of the Child and Adult Care Food Program report.

Executive Summary

Child and adult care providers work tirelessly to ensure nutritious meals and snacks are served to children and adults in their care. However, child care providers continue to be some of the lowest paid workers in the United States. A recent survey from the Stanford Center on Early Childhood found that one in every three child care providers experience food insecurity, a quarter of them have had difficulty paying for basic necessities like food, healthcare, and utilities, and almost half of them worry about being able to pay rent or mortgage. Child and adult care providers nationwide are struggling to make ends meet while operating on lean margins, and yet, many of them remain committed to keeping costs low for families and providing high-quality care.

The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) is a federal nutrition program that provides reimbursement to program operators for serving nutritious meals and snacks nationwide to children in child care centers, family child care homes, Head Start centers, emergency shelters, and afterschool programs as well as adults in day care. The CACFP is an indicator of quality child care and participating programs provide more meals and serve more vegetables, meat, eggs, whole grains, and milk. Reimbursements received through the CACFP supplement some of the costs of providing nutritious meals.

Although the CACFP provides funds that support providers in serving more nutritious meals, there are many barriers and shortcomings of the program that have hindered participation. There has been a continuous downward trend in the number of sponsoring organizations, and providers participating in the CACFP and that trend has accelerated since the end of pandemic flexibilities – with the largest drop in sponsoring organizations in the last five years. Based off of results from a survey conducted by the National CACFP Sponsors Association, factors associated with the decrease in program participation include insufficient reimbursement rates, administrative burden, program difficulty, lack of flexibility, and retirement of sponsoring organization leadership.

Current CACFP reimbursement does not provide sufficient funds to cover the increased food and operational cost of the CACFP, thus threatening the financial viability of sponsors and providers. The increased administrative paperwork required at both the federal and state level is often cited as a burden and a barrier to participation for operators whose primary responsibility is the care of children. Burdensome requirements discourage participation and limit the recruitment of providers to the program. A lack of program improvements has caused the CACFP to fall behind on modernization efforts compared to other child nutrition programs, resulting in more difficult and costly operations. Many of these issues could be addressed through Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), yet Congress has not taken action in 15 years.

Despite all of these challenges faced by program operators, most continue to be passionate about feeding children and adults and would recommend the CACFP to other providers. The CACFP is an important factor in addressing food insecurity and combating diet-related diseases, however it is underutilized because of the barriers to participation. In order to expand access to the program and ensure that children and adults in care are nutrition secure, stakeholders must work together to improve the CACFP.


Recommendations and Conclusion

In order to mitigate the loss of CACFP operators and ensure that children and adults are able to receive nutritious meals, all CACFP stakeholders must work together to improve and strengthen the program. NCA urges:

  • Congress to initiate Child Nutrition Reauthorization and include vital CACFP policy priorities to:
    • increase reimbursement rates,
    • eliminate tiering of family child care homes,
    • and allow for an additional meal or snack.
  • USDA and State Agencies to streamline paperwork requirements to reduce administrative burden on operators.
  • Congress to allow off-site monitoring flexibilities nationwide.

The CACFP is associated with increased food security, prevention of diet-related diseases such as obesity, and quality care. There is no doubt that the program has positive, lasting effects on the children and adults it serves. However, if measures are not taken to address the barriers of the program, participation in the program will continue to decline. Despite its challenges, the CACFP community believes in the program and works hard to provide nutritious meals. Since 2010, very little has been done to modernize and streamline the program. Immediate improvements are critical to ensure the nutrition security of America’s youngest and most vulnerable population.