Time to Celebrate the Child and Adult Care Food Program

Did you know we’re celebrating National Child and Adult Care Food Program Week? I’ll bet you thought it was only National Poison Awareness Week. Odd bedfellows these.

Anyway, National CACFP Week it is. So I thought I’d try to find out more about this lesser-known, by important part of the federal nutrition safety net we’re supposed to be celebrating.

Discoveries …

Like most, but not all federal nutrition assistance programs, CACFP is a so-called entitlement.

In other words, funding for the program is based on the costs of meals and snacks recipients serve rather than whatever Congress decides to approve in any given year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture distributes the funds as grants to state agencies — usually state education agencies — according to a formula that’s way too complicated to summarize.

The state agencies then enter into agreements with child care providers, Head Start programs, recreation centers, emergency shelters day care facilities for seniors and adults with disabilities, etc.

The programs have to serve meals and snacks that meet nutrition standards set by USDA. These help ensure that children and vulnerable adults get some reasonably well-balanced nutritious meals and/or snacks on a regular basis.

Programs for children have to be located in high-poverty areas, i.e., where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, or enroll a certain percent of children who’d qualify.

Family income for free school meals must be no higher than 130% of the applicable federal poverty line and, for reduced-price meals, no higher than 185% of the FPL. CACFP thus focuses on children who are definitely low-income.

Though CACFP can subsidize meals and snacks for a variety of programs, child day care centers are the single largest type supported.

In December 2011, for example, CACFP subsidized nearly 143,000 meals. About 68% of them were for children in day care centers. Most of the rest — just under 32% — went to children in home day care.

The Food Research and Action Center reports that about 3.3 million children — mostly preschool age — benefited from the program in 2010.

This is about 3% more than in 2009 and a whopping 40% more than in 1996, the base year FRAC uses.

All told, child care providers served well over 1.8 million subsidized meals and snacks in 2010 — 77% of them at no cost to the parents.

An additional 66.7 million meals and snacks helped feed adults in day care centers — all but about 9.5% of them free.

But enough with the figures. Bottom line is that CACFP clearly plays a key role in our safety net.

Low-income children and adults get fed when they might otherwise go hungry. And every meal CACFP subsidizes is one less meal that families have to stretch their food stamp benefits to cover — or pay for out of their own pockets.

At the same time, as USDA says, the program helps make day care affordable since providers would surely have to charge higher rates if they had to pay full cost for all meals. In this respect, it helps make working affordable, as well as eating.

CACFP also supports after-school programs that help low-income youth succeed in school, broaden their horizons, get some healthy physical activity — and stay out of trouble while their parents work.

Kids are hungry by mid-afternoon. Snacks are essential — maybe a full meal too, especially for youth in programs that run till early evening. Also for those who won’t find dinner waiting, no matter what time they get home.

Feeding these hungry, growing kids is a large expense for hard-pressed public schools, parks and recreation departments and nonprofits.  But at least CACFP can now subsidize suppers as well as snacks nationwide — thanks to the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act.

So, yes, let’s celebrate the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

And remember the good it does whenever we’re told that safety net spending must be cut to reduce the deficit because we can’t possibly touch defense or, heaven forfend, raise taxes.

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