Study: USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program Underused By Connecticut Child Care Centers

Low program awareness and burdensome paperwork cited as common reasons for lack of participation, which costs the state millions in foregone federal fund

A group of children and an instructor sharing lunch.

Connecticut child care centers missed out on nearly $31 million in federal funds in 2019, according to a new study (Shutterstock).

Connecticut child care centers cite low awareness, burdensome reporting requirements, and low reimbursement rates as reasons for lack of participation in the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), according to a new study from researchers at the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health. Because of this, Connecticut child care centers missed out on over $30 million in federal funds in 2019.

Child nutrition in the United States is in a crisis, with millions of children at risk for poor diet, unhealthy weight gain, and food insecurity. CACFP provides meal reimbursements to child care programs for serving food that meets specific nutrition standards. Despite multiple benefits for children, their families and child care providers, such as access to nutritious foods, nutrition training, and financial support, CACFP is not used by many eligible child care providers.

“Strategies to increase participation in the Child and Adult Care Food Program are urgently needed. We know from our research that participating centers perceive CACFP as a critical benefit in helping them serve nutritious meals to children, especially those lacking adequate food at home,” says Tatiana Andreyeva, Director of Economic Initiatives at the Rudd Center and lead author of the study. “But, CACFP is not used by many eligible child care centers, and until we understand why, we can’t help increase participation rates and help bring healthy meals to young children and federal funds to Connecticut child care providers.”

To identify facilitators and barriers to CACFP participation, researchers used data from an online survey of licensed child care centers in Connecticut. They analyzed predictors of CACFP participation, assessed program experiences and challenges, and gathered opinions on increasing program appeal. Researchers also assessed the amount of federal funding foregone because of CACFP underuse in the state.

Key findings include:

  • Frequently reported reasons for nonparticipation in CACFP were lack of eligible/low-income children (37%), not knowing enough about the program (36%), not being worth participation for only serving snacks (27%), parental preference for sending lunches (16%), and burdensome paperwork (13%).
  • Most centers felt that meal reimbursements are an important benefit, but were concerned that they do not fully reimburse meal costs.
  • Many providers found reporting requirements and paperwork to be too burdensome and cited streamlining paperwork as one of the top changes needed to increase participation.
  • CACFP underuse left an estimated 20,300 low-income children without CACFP subsidized meals and cost Connecticut $30.7 million in foregone federal funds.

Study authors say many of the barriers to participation found in the study are avoidable, such as the lack of information about the program and its eligibility, and these findings offer important and actionable steps to help increase participation rates and improve child nutrition in Connecticut.

“This is a lost economic opportunity for many child care providers that directly affects food choices and food security of young Connecticut children,” says Andreyeva. “Increasing awareness through targeted outreach, clarifying eligibility, limiting paperwork burdens, highlighting participation benefits – these are all ways that we now know may help improve enrollment and extend CACFP’s reach. It’s important information for federal and state policymakers who play a critical role in expanding access to federal food assistance programs. ”