Federal Nutrition Assistance for Young Children: Under-utilized and Unequally Accessed

Only 3 out of 5 licensed childcare centers in low-income areas participate in CACFP, despite great needs in the community

A happy child in a yellow shirt lifts his arms while sitting at a table, with an apple and a glass of milk in front of him.


Despite being an important tool in the effort to improve child nutrition and reduce food insecurity, the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) remains under-utilized in childcare settings. In response, a team of researchers led by Tatiana Andreyeva at the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health set out to provide data on CACFP use across states and predictors of participation in CACFP.

At its core, CACFP provides reimbursements for nutritious meals and snacks to eligible children and adults at participating childcare centers, daycare homes, and adult daycare centers. Every day, the program – which is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – serves more than 4.2 million children and 138,000 adults around the country.

Although CACFP publishes data on the number of meals served, little is known about what percentage of childcare centers utilize this crucial resource. To answer this, researchers pulled administrative data from CACFP and childcare licensing agencies in 47 states and the District of Columbia. Then, predictors of CACFP participation were estimated using a multivariable Bayesian spatial logistic regression model.

Key findings include:

  • Overall, out of the 93,227 licensed childcare centers across the country that the researchers looked at, only 36.5% participated in CACFP.
  • The percentage of centers that participated varied greatly by state, with some states only having 15.2% participation and some states having up to 65.3% participation.
  • Participation was higher overall in low-income areas, but still only 3 out of 5 centers (57.5%) in these communities participated in CACFP.

To help explain the large variation in participation in states, the researchers then analyzed the number of CACFP sponsoring agencies in each state, along with other factors. In states with at least three agencies, centers were 38% more likely to participate in CACFP, suggesting that work at the state level can help expand access to this resource.

“The large variation in CACFP participation rates across states, after accounting for income differences, suggests some states developed effective strategies to reduce program barriers and increase participation rates,” says Andreyeva, Director of Economic Initiatives at the UConn Rudd Center and lead author on the study.

Although the many benefits of CACFP are well-documented (kids get better nutrition, childcare providers get reimbursements to cover some of food costs, families get a break by not having to send food in, the state gets federal dollars that help across multiple sectors), these findings still point to significant CACFP under-utilization and unequal access, particularly in some states and regions. Work at the federal and state levels is needed to expand participation in the program, especially in low-income areas, so that more young children can eat healthfully with CACFP.