Missed meals

Early ed centers with thousands of Mass. children not taking advantage of food program

IN 2009, FIRST Lady Michelle Obama famously took a shovel to a plot on the White House lawn and turned it into a garden, announcing her intention that schoolchildren should eat healthier food and exercise more in order to combat obesity.

Even in the wake of the enactment of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, there has been a lot of debate about what foods children should eat. But one fact goes undisputed: childhood nutrition fuels learning. Children have to eat to learn.

We know this in Massachusetts, where the free and reduced-price National School Lunch Program serves over 500,000 students each day. As significant as that number is, Massachusetts is earning an incomplete in early childhood nutrition.

There are more than 200,000 children enrolled in early education and care programs throughout Massachusetts, and many of them could be receiving nutritious meals through a lesser-known meal program launched nearly 50 years ago to serve children from infancy until they enter school.

The federal entitlement Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) serves only 70,000 individuals, including a portion of adults who are served in non-residential care settings.

In our recent study, we found the program, which is administered by state secondary, elementary, and early education officials, is not serving thousands of likely eligible children in child care and pre-schools.

Our researchers found that excessive paperwork, outdated regulations, and poor outreach to providers have stymied efforts to enroll more providers in the program. According to our report, Eating to Learn: Increasing Participation in the Child and Adult Care Food Program, CACFP, which reimburses early education and care providers for healthy food served to young children, enrolls just 24 percent of center-based programs in Massachusetts.

In the state’s poorest cities, lack of participation has left many children behind. In the Gateway Cities, the program does not serve 242 center-based programs that care for and educate an estimated 5,000 children from low-income households who are likely eligible to receive healthy meals and snacks through the initiative.

While 77 percent of the state’s family child care providers currently participate, enrollment has declined over the past two decades. In 1996, 7,012 family childcare programs in Massachusetts were enrolled in CACFP. Our analysis of data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shows that only 4,508 family childcare programs were participating in 2014.

This takes place against a backdrop of staggering rates of childhood obesity in Massachusetts, where one quarter of our children are overweight or obese by the time they reach first grade.

As part of our Eating to Learn initiative, researchers surveyed more than 500 programs, conducted focus groups with family child care providers, listened to participants during community meetings held throughout the state, and reviewed data from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which administers CACFP and annually receives over $50 million from the US Department of Agriculture.

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Among the report’s findings:

  • Statewide, three out of every four center-based early child programs do not participate in CACFP, raising questions about barriers to enrollment for these centers. Not every center is eligible, however, as eligibility depends on non-profit status and family income levels of the children enrolled.
  • Combined with rising food prices, low levels of CACFP reimbursement – from 7 cents per snack to $3.07 per meal – discourage providers from participating in the program.
  • Providers report that the volume of paperwork and burdensome CACFP regulations also discourage potential participants.
Though not as well known or understood as the massive National School Lunch Program, CACFP can give our youngest children their best access to nutritious meals and snacks in our state’s early education and care system. Massachusetts and its federal partners can do better on childhood nutrition by improving outreach and removing bureaucratic barriers. After all, the only paperwork that should interfere with a nutritious meal is a napkin.

Marie St. Fleur is the president and CEO of the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children, a non-profit early education organization based in Boston.