How the Child and Adult Care Food Program Improves Early Childhood Education

Giving child care programs the ability to provide children three healthy meals per day through a reformed and expanded CACFP program would go a long way toward supporting children’s growth and development.

Grapes are served during preschool lunch at the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington, Delaware, 2009. (AP/Steve Ruark)
Grapes are served during preschool lunch at the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington, Delaware, 2009. (AP/Steve Ruark)

For many American families, finding high-quality, affordable child care is an impossible task. But it is also a necessary one, given that most families cannot afford to have a full-time, stay-at-home caregiver. Early childhood education and care programs give parents the opportunity to work, but they also have the capacity to offer important learning opportunities for children at a crucial stage of development. Unfortunately, they are too often cost prohibitive; annual child care costs are currently higher than the cost of in-state tuition and fees at public universities in more than 30 states. Furthermore, research shows that the child care options many families struggle to afford are usually of poor or mediocre quality.

One of the many tools the nation has to support low-income families and their young children is the Child and Adult Care Food Program, or CACFP. Managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, and administered by states and nonprofit groups, CACFP provides snacks and meals to more than 3 million children at child care centers, family day care homes, Head Start programs, after-school programs, and homeless shelters. In 2014, the program funded nearly 2 billion meals; the vast majority of these went to children younger than 5. Subsidizing meals defrays overall child care costs for parents and contributes to children’s ability to thrive and learn. Beyond this, CACFP also has a track record of supporting healthy and safe child care environments.

The upcoming federal child nutrition reauthorization, or CNR, process provides Congress the opportunity to support early childhood through CACFP. This report makes a case for why Congress should include provisions in the CNR bill to reduce participation barriers for programs and providers and maximize the program’s potential.

Specifically, the reauthorization bill should:

  • Increase reimbursement rates to more fully cover the costs of meals
  • Reduce the CACFP area eligibility test to 40 percent of residents living below the federal poverty line, or FPL
  • Allow three meals per day in CACFP to account for the reality that many parents are now working longer and nontraditional hours
  • Reduce CACFP paperwork by expanding direct certification and reforming the complex, two-tiered reimbursement system for family child care homes
  • Bolster the use of CACFP in ensuring safe child care settings
  • Create a small pilot grant program to reward states for using CACFP to support food related costs in preschool expansion

CACFP is a relatively small program, costing $3 billion annually; this is only about 1/25th the level of the budget of the largest federal nutrition assistance program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Because CACFP plays an outsized function by leveraging resources, Congress should make a concerted effort to make the program even stronger.

Christine Binder is the Director of Child Nutrition Policy and Programs at the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Joel Berg is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Maryam Adamu is a Research Assistant for the Early Childhood Policy team at American Progress. Katie Hamm is the Director of Early Childhood Policy at American Progress.


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Christine Binder

Joel Berg

Senior Fellow

Maryam Adamu

Research Associate

Katie Hamm

Vice President, Early Childhood Policy