All parents of young children know that getting kids to eat healthy meals and snacks can be a near-constant battle, especially when toddlers begin exerting their newly-discovered free will. But for families that are barely getting by – working long hours for too low wages – simply providing their children with three meals a day is a financial hardship and logistical nightmare. Millions of these kids would have an even more difficult time accessing meals if it weren’t for the USDA Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), a federal program which 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.
While hunger is difficult for any family to endure, those with very young children seem to be the hardest hit. Researchers estimate that half of all children under age 3 live in low-income or poor households. The challenge of finding child care that is both trustworthy and affordable makes it all the more difficult for parents who are trying to work their way out of poverty. For families with employed mothers living in poverty and making child care payments, 36 percent of the family’s monthly income is spent on child care.
As a result of these high costs, too many families are forced to choose between child care, meals, and other basic necessities. But the CACFP indirectly subsidizes child care by providing healthy meals and snacks for young children at care facilities. By providing these resources, the tradeoffs that most low-income families make in securing child care become a little easier to manage.
Given that child care is now more expensive than in-state college tuition in many states, the affordability of quality child care should be the prime focus of any CACFP reform effort. The law that authorizes this program – which served nearly 2 billion meals last year, mostly to young children – is scheduled to expire this September. As Congress considers the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, it marks an opportunity to renew and strengthen our public investment in quality child care and education. The CACFP not only makes quality child care more affordable for countless families, it also encourages school readiness for children who are at the greatest risk of developmental delays – health outcomes that are often connected to frequent hunger and food insecurity.
A few key changes to CACFP would allow the program to reach more children and families who need to access these benefits. Current reimbursement rates for the sites providing the meals are inadequate and out of step with rising food costs, especially as quality child care centers strive to serve healthier meals. Moreover, since many parents are now working longer and nontraditional hours, the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act should allow three meals per day to be reimbursed by the CACFP, instead of the current two meals.
Administrative procedures also need to be updated. Congress should reform the CACFP area eligibility test so that more sites are able to participate in the program. Further, we should recognize that CACFP is the direct point of contact between government and our most vulnerable young citizens, and use the program to ensure safe child care settings that promote best practices.
By taking these modest steps we can expect to see more accessible, affordable, quality child care centers. And if parents can count on these programs to keep their kids healthy and secure, they’re better able to work and support their families.
Editor’s note: To learn more, read “How the Child and Adult Care Food Program Improves Early Childhood Education”.