Child care centers participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) serve meals and snacks with higher nutritional quality, according to new research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics by the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Centers that do not participate in CACFP are less likely to serve healthier options, such as nonfat or low-fat dairy and whole grains, and less likely to serve fruits and vegetables with meals.
From a very young age, children in the United States are consuming foods high in added sugar, sodium, and saturated fats, which puts them at risk for developing unhealthy lifelong habits. As a result, early care and education (ECE) settings have emerged as an important resource to help reshape the food choices for the 60% of young American children in regular non-parental care. The food environment in childcare is especially important for children from low-income families who often lack resources for adequate nutrition at home.
The Child and Adult Care Food Program is a federal program that provides reimbursements for nutritious meals and snacks to eligible children enrolled in participating child care centers. Foods provided to children in CACFP participating programs are required to meet nutrition standards in order for the program to receive reimbursement, which often provides incentives to provide healthier options.
“Many states require all licensed childcare centers to meet CACFP nutrition standards, regardless of whether or not they participate in CACFP. But, it is not clear whether these requirements are actually being enforced in non-participating programs,” says Tatiana Andreyeva, Director of Economic Initiatives at the Rudd Center and lead author of the study. “By understanding how well all centers are complying, regardless of participation status, we can help determine how to better support both children and centers in receiving and serving nutritious meals.”
To evaluate adherence to the six minimum CACFP nutrition standards, researchers collected menus and online surveys from 200 Connecticut-based licensed child care centers serving meals and/or snacks to children 0-5 years of age. Best practices were also evaluated, including: fruits and vegetables at each snack; whole fruit more often than juice; dark green vegetables weekly; and at least 2 servings of whole grains daily.
Key findings include:
- Centers participating in CACFP met on average 79% of the key nutrition standards, while non-CACFP centers met 56%.
- Most CACFP centers regularly offered whole grains, low-fat/nonfat milk, and low-sugar cereal, while less than half of non-CACFP centers complied with these standards.
- All centers were successful in limiting fruit juice and not serving sugary drinks.
Study authors say these results highlight the need for additional supports for non-participating CACFP centers to help improve the food environment for young children.
“Simply requiring compliance with CACFP nutrition standards in state licensing regulations, without providing the implementation supports that come along with CACFP participation, is not enough to ensure better nutrition in early care settings,” says Andreyeva. “We know from our results that CACFP is improving the food environment for young children, but we also need to consider how to extend nutrition assistance and professional support to non-participating centers so all children have the opportunity to receive nutritious meals.”