Program to Feed Hungry Kids, Families Should Build on Strong Foundation

Child and Adult Care Food Program is getting job done, according to report, but could reach more children and parents if it made needed reforms

school breakfast
A new report on a federal program that helps feed needy children in childcare declares the Child and Adult Care Food Program to be effective in providing meals to low-income youngsters, but the report also states that more children could be served if the state implements needed reforms.

Advocates for Children of New Jersey and a Philadelphia-based organization called Reinvestment Fund released a report today that largely praised the CACFP, the federal program that provides aid to childcare and adult-care institutions as well as daycare homes with nutritious meals for those with a low income. In surveying those participating in the program, including childcare providers, sponsoring organizations, and food vendors, the ACNJ found overwhelming support for CACFP. Care providers said the program is valuable and that children are eating healthier meals because of their participation.

Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed said that children need the nutrition they receive through CACFP and might go hungry without the program.

“For some children, these are their only meals,’’ said Simone Bana, executive director of Programs for Parents, a Newark-based nonprofit that acts as a CACFP sponsor to family daycare homes and center-based providers.

How to feed more hungry kids

But the report also calls for several improvements that could increase participation in the program. Some providers reported that federal reimbursement rates are too low and many found paperwork and administrative costs associated with participation to be burdensome.

“Through this study, we were able to identify some of the concerns and inefficiencies that can create tension and compromise the quality of food served to young children through this program,” said Adam Steinberg, who worked on the study as Mellon/ACLS public fellow at Reinvestment Fund.

It’s unclear how many New Jersey children benefit from this program, which has income requirements similar to those used by the National School Lunch Program.

Questions about the data

In New Jersey, the state Department of Agriculture oversees the program. The ACNJ report states that 530 New Jersey organizations, including childcare providers, nonprofits, schools, and local governments are CACFP sponsors. They coordinate the program for 1,400 childcare centers and family homes serving children from newborn to age 13. Another 12 organizations serve as sponsors for people caring for children in their own homes, providing food and training to 476 family childcare homes. But there was no breakdown of the number of children served, and ACNJ had questions about the reliability of data provided for the entire universe of participants — including senior citizens and the disabled.

One of the report’s recommendations is that the state improve its data collection on the program.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, CACFP provides more than 4.2 million children and 130,000 adults across the country with nutritious meals and snacks every day as part of the care they receive.

Program sponsors ensure meals are delivered to their sites, oversee staff training, and ensure proper record-keeping. Sites are supposed to record the number of children fed each day, participate in training, and meet health and safety requirements.

ACNJ’s report is based on a survey of more than 120 childcare providers and organizations that are CACFP sponsors, as well as interviews with sponsors and food vendors. Nearly all responded that despite some operational challenges, they would recommend the program to other childcare providers, primarily because of its benefits to children and families. In addition to providing much-needed nutrition, the program helps young children and their families learn about new foods and how to make healthy choices.

“The message is clear: CACFP helps young children and their families to not only receive nutritious food each day, but also to develop healthy lifelong eating habits,’’ said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “Unfortunately, this critical nutrition is not reaching every young child who could benefit.’’

Hungry kids in NJ

There is a great need in the state. According to Feed America’s Map the Meal Gap, 280,000 New Jersey children face hunger each day. ACNJ works to increase awareness of federal nutrition-assistance programs and help providers capitalize on these resources, which are crucial to combating childhood hunger.

To address complaints of burdensome paperwork, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture reportedly is moving to an electronic record-keeping system. Currently, most CACFP sponsors must fill out paper forms.

Difficulty in contracting with food vendors to provide healthy meals was also identified as an issue by some sponsors, while vendors said problems arise when sponsors are rigid in adhering to contracts, even as availability of fresh produce and other food varies.

“Fortunately, there are many workable solutions that can enhance the quality of the program for young kids and their families,’’ Steinberg said.

The report makes several recommendations for improving program administration and boosting participation. These include:

  • Encourage more school districts to act as CACFP meal vendors or sponsors and conduct outreach efforts to attract more childcare providers
  • Expedite the implementation of an online record-keeping system.
  • Create food-buying hubs to make it easier for small centers to strike contracts with food vendors to provide fresh, healthy food to young children.
  • Improve training, including the use of webinars and at locations throughout the state, and offer continuing education credits for CACFP training.
  • NJDA officials said they are working on several of these steps, including offering continuing education credits, implementing the online system, and providing more training and technical assistance to both food vendors and sponsors.

    Said Zalkind, “Taking these steps will help ensure that more young children receive the nutrition they need for healthy growth and development, improving their chances for later success in school and in life.”