Keeping Kids Equitably Fed through Child Care

By Kailey Wilkens 

This summer, Congress extended many important child nutrition supports when it passed the Keep Kids Fed Act of 2022. One of these critical programs is the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) that, among other provisions, offers reimbursement for meals and snacks in child care settings. However, CACFP distributes funding inequitably–a disparity that most hurts Black and Latino families. While the passage of the bill is a strong step forward by temporarily eliminating resource inequities, policymakers must reconsider other areas of federal nutrition programs. Specifically, policymakers should reassess how to target these funds to meet the nutritional needs of children in early education settings.  

With 23 percent of families experiencing food insecurity as of Spring 2022, child nutrition support is essential. Families of color are especially affected. For example, over the past two decades, Black and Latinx families have been twice as likely to go hungry as other communities. The pandemic only exacerbated these challenges. Addressing this issue is critical because childhood hunger has lasting detrimental effects on young children’s mental and physical health.  

Programs like CACFP work to solve this problem by helping our nation’s youngest children get the food they need for healthy development. CACFP provides financial subsidies, training, technical assistance, nutrition education, and food safety information to child care providers in a variety of settings. The program provides different reimbursements for child care centers and family child care homes. Typically, a child care home’s eligibility for meal reimbursement is determined by its location. Homes in lower-income areas receive higher “Tier I” reimbursement. Those in other areas receive a lower “Tier II” reimbursement, which can be around 50 percent less than Tier I funds.  

The consequences of the CACFP tier structure are severe. Tier II homes may only be able to afford lower-quality meals, especially if the provider is suddenly dropped from Tier I. Today, 30 percent of providers already express difficulty meeting minimum CACFP nutrition requirements with the funding they are provided. With child care costs already too much for many families to bear, most homes would not be able to increase fees to make up the difference. This may fall on providers themselves, a third of whom already experience food insecurity 

It’s possible for a Tier II child care home to qualify for Tier I reimbursement. However, most child care providers can’t afford to meet the huge administrative burden required to reach Tier I. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress established a waiver so all child care homes qualified for Tier I reimbursement. The Keep Kids Fed Act extended the waiver, which was set to expire just days after the bill passed. This urgent action ensured food security for millions of U.S. families. 

In contrast to child care homes, child care centers (traditionally in commercial buildings with more staff and children) do not have to manage the tier system. Instead, their reimbursement is based on each child’s eligibility for paid, reduced-price, or free meals. While it may still be difficult to collect this information from families, this system is much more consistent for child care providers and prevents sudden drops or changes.   

Child care homes should have a better system. These homes provide an important care option for many families, offering flexible hours (including vital care during non-traditional hours) and a home-based setting.  The tier system disadvantages Black and Latino families, who rely on family child care homes more than other families, and exacerbates long-existing systemic inequities.  

Although the Keep Kids Fed Act averted some consequences of the tier system, the CACFP area waiver extension only lasts one year. Without federal action, families and child care providers will soon be facing this same concern again. 

Congress is advancing more measures to improve child nutrition, such as the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, introduced by Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR). While this bill contains crucial increases in CACFP reimbursements, it does not address the tier system. 

Policymakers have made promising progress in addressing child nutrition with both of these measures. However, Congress can do more to advance equity by reconsidering the CACFP tier system. As we celebrate increased access to healthy food in the Keep Kids Fed Act and Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, we must keep up the momentum in improving child nutrition. We must ensure our nation’s children have equitable access to the quality nutrition they need to thrive.  

*Kailey Wilkens is a student at the University of California San Diego and served as a Zero Hunger Intern on the Child Care and Early Education Team at CLASP this summer. The team is grateful for her important contributions.