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Foods Served in Child Care Programs Participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program and Alignment with Program Meal Patterns

Kelly Patlan, Meaghan E. Glenn, Patricia Connor, Chantal Stidsen, Lauren E.W. Olsho, Michael B. Witt, Abt Associates; Alice Ann H. Gola, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Kristen A. Copeland, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and College of Medicine, University of Cincinnati.

Article

May 20, 2022

Eating habits and preferences are formed early in life, making childhood a critical time to promote healthy nutrition. With 75 percent of children aged 3 – 5 spending time in child care, and eating 2 to 3 meals and snacks while in attendance, food offered in these settings contributes substantially to child diet quality. The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) aims to help child care providers serve high quality meals to children by reimbursing them for serving meals that meet nutrition standards based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The Abt-led Study of Nutrition and Activity in Child Care Settings (SNACS) found that most CACFP meals provided required CACFP components for children aged 3-5, suggesting that CACFP meals contribute positively to children’s diet quality. But there is room for improvement, particularly for increasing vegetables served and limiting foods high in added sugar and fat.

SNACS, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service funded, reviewed a week’s worth of menus in a nationally representative sample of 664 programs participating in the CACFP. Ninety-seven percent of breakfasts, 88 percent of lunches, and 97 percent of afternoon snacks included all required CACFP meal components. Most breakfasts included fruits (96 percent), but not vegetables; 16 percent included a meat or meat alternate, though they aren’t required. Eighty-one percent of lunches included both fruits and vegetables. Eighty percent of afternoon snacks included grains or breads, and 57 percent had fruits.  Most frequently served foods included one percent unflavored milk, which is recommended, and fresh fruits such as apples and bananas,. Most menus limited juice, offered low-sugar cereal, and did not include flavored milk.