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Recent Bills Offer Needed Updates to Child Care Food Assistance  Program

News December 12, 2023

Having access to nutritious food is essential to children’s healthy growth and development, and children in full-time care need multiple meals and snacks throughout the day. With the cost of food rising significantly over the last few years, providing healthy meals and snacks to children has become increasingly difficult for many providers. Running a child care program is expensive and many providers barely break even. Some providers struggle with food insecurity themselves, and many make personal sacrifices to ensure the children in their care are fed. 

The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), created in 1968, provides meals and snacks to children in participating center-based child care programs and family child care (FCC) homes at a free or reduced-price. CACFP is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) through grants to states.  Child care providers receive a cash reimbursement for nutritious meals and snacks served to children, which must meet federal nutrition guidelines. CACFP also serves children residing in participating homeless shelters and after school programs. The program serves more than 4.2 million children each day. 

CACFP plays an important role in laying the foundation for healthy eating habits and battling food insecurity, as many children eat the majority of their meals while in care, and some children may not have regular access to healthy food at home. Participating child care providers are currently reimbursed for up to two meals and one snack (or one meal and two snacks) per child every day.  The program also benefits parents, because knowing that their children will receive nutritious meals while at child care can save them time, money, and stress. 

Unfortunately, in its current form, CACFP is underutilized. The first nationwide study of CACFP data published in September found that the program is not reaching nearly as many children as it could. Overall, just 36.5 percent of licensed child care centers participate in CACFP, ranging from 15.2% to 65.3% across states. Many providers are not familiar with the program and many choose not to participate because of the administrative burden. To increase participation in the program and ultimately support child nutrition, CACFP needs to be updated to better reflect the needs of the child care sector. 

Over the last few months,  three bills have been introduced in Congress to strengthen the CACFP. The following bills would ensure children have healthy meals and lessen the burdens on providers and parents.

The Child Care Nutrition Enhancement Act 

In September, Representatives Greg Landsman (D-OH) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR)  introduced H.R. 5569 and in November, Senator Bob Casey introduced a companion bill in the Senate, S.3294. The Child Care Nutrition Enhancement Act would ensure that child care programs participating in CACFP are better able to provide nutritious meals to children by increasing reimbursement rates to these providers. Specifically, the bill calls for: 

  • A 10 cent increase for all eligible meals and snacks in all CACFP-participating Head Start, child care centers, family child care (FCC) programs, at-risk after school programs, and adult care programs.
  • Improved reimbursements for FCC providers specifically, by: 
    • Eliminating the burdonesome two-tier reimbursement system, which currently provides different reimbursement rates to FCC participants versus center-based child care participants and Head Start/Early Head Start. Currently, for FCC  providers, reimbursement rates vary depending on the level of local poverty.
    • Allowing FCC providers to be reimbursed for meals provided to their own children who are in their care, regardless of their income level
  • The Senate version of the bill makes the CACFP payment rate-setting more equitable by calculating FCC payments the same as child care center payments. Currently, FCC payments are calculated based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for  “food at home,” which is substantially lower than the CPI for “food away from home,” which inform center-based payments.

Early Childhood Nutrition Improvement Act

In October, Representatives Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Marcus Molinaro (R-NY) reintroduced the Early Childhood Nutrition Improvement Act. H.R. 6067 takes multiple steps to strengthen CACFP, including:

  • Adding another meal to be reimbursed in CACFP for children who are in care for more than eight hours.
  • Changing the payment policy so that FCC programs in CACFP are reimbursed based on “food away from home.”
  • Simplifying eligibility reporting for for-profit child care centers. 

First Five Years Fund appreciates the leadership of Representatives Bonamici, Landsman, Molinaro, and Senator Casey in introducing these bills as they would provide essential support to providers who are already operating on razor thin margins and enhance child nutrition. 

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