Federal Youngster Care Diet Program Helps Facilities Present More healthy Choices to Kids

Daycare centers participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) serve meals and snacks with higher nutritional quality, according to a new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics at the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Centers that don’t participate in CACFP are less likely to serve healthier options such as fat-free or low-fat dairy and whole grains, and are less likely to serve fruits and vegetables with meals.

From a young age in the United States, children consume foods high in added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, which puts them at risk of developing lifelong unhealthy habits. As a result, Early Childhood Care and Education (ECE) facilities have become an important resource in reshaping diet choices for the 60% of young American children in regular non-parental care. The nutritional environment in childcare is particularly important for children from low-income families who often lack the resources for adequate nutrition at home.

The Child and Adult Care Food Program is a federal program that reimburses nutritional meals and snacks to eligible children enrolled in participating daycare. Food provided to children in CACFP participant programs must meet nutritional standards in order for the program to receive reimbursement, which often provides incentives to offer healthier options.

“Many states require all licensed daycare centers to adhere to CACFP nutritional standards, whether or not they participate in CACFP. However, it is not clear whether these requirements are actually enforced in non-participating programs, ”says Tatiana Andreyeva, director of economic initiatives at the Rudd Center and lead author of the study. “By understanding how well all centers comply with regulations, regardless of their participation level, we can help better support children and centers in receiving and serving nutritious meals.”

To assess compliance with the six CACFP minimum nutritional standards, researchers collected menus and online surveys from 200 licensed daycare centers in Connecticut that served meals and / or snacks to children ages 0-5. Best practices were also assessed, including: fruits and vegetables with each snack; whole fruits more often than juice; dark green vegetables weekly; and at least 2 servings of whole grain products daily.

The most important findings include:

  • Centers participating in CACFP met an average of 79% of key nutritional standards, while non-CACFP centers met 56%.
  • Most CACFP centers offered whole grains, low-fat / low-fat milk, and low-sugar cereals on a regular basis, while less than half of the non-CACFP centers met these standards.
  • All centers were successful in restricting fruit juices and not serving sugary drinks.

Study authors say these results underscore the need for additional support for non-participating CACFP centers to improve the feeding environment for young children.

“Simply requiring compliance with CACFP nutritional standards in government licensing regulations without providing the implementation support that comes with CACFP participation is not enough to ensure better nutrition in early care settings,” Andreyeva says. “We know from our results that CACFP improves the nutritional environment for young children, but we also need to consider how we can extend nutritional and professional assistance to non-participating centers so that all children can have nutritious meals.”

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