In 2021, there were 33.8 million Americans, including 5 million children, living with food insecurity.
To put that in perspective, there are more people living with food insecurity than the entire population of Texas. Families of color are more likely than other families to experience food insecurity. There is not a single county in the United States without someone suffering from food insecurity. Many families struggling with this challenge rely on child care to make sure that their children receive nutritious meals and snacks during the day. Yet we are not making the investments necessary to ensure that children have the child care and nutrition that is so essential to their growth and development.
The federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) aims to help both children and the child care programs that serve them by funding nutritious meals and snacks for eligible children enrolled in participating child care centers, family child care homes, and Head Start programs. Centers and family child care homes can be reimbursed for up to two meals (breakfast, lunch, or dinner) and one snack, or two snacks and one meal, for each eligible child each day, while after-school programs can be reimbursed for up to one meal and one snack for each eligible child each day. There are two reimbursement levels—tier one (the higher rate) and tier two. Centers receive a tier one reimbursement rate if they are serving low-income families or located in a low-income neighborhood; family child care homes receive the tier one rate if they are located in a low-income neighborhood, if the provider’s household income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or if the child served is in a low-income family.
Although CACFP serves an essential role, it is not reaching enough children in child care nor offering enough support to participating children and child care programs. Many child care programs are unable to access CACFP benefits—or can access CACFP but not the tier one rate—due to administrative barriers. And for programs that do manage to qualify to participate in CACFP, the program’s reimbursement rates are not high enough to adequately cover the costs of nutritious meals, leaving child care programs—many of which are already under financial strain—to make up the difference. Another limitation of CACFP is that it reimburses for no more than two meals and one snack per day—even if a child attends child care for a full day, from breakfast time to dinner time.
If child care programs do not receive more help affording the rising costs of food, they will find it harder to serve nutritious meals to children—or even keep their doors open, which will only lead to more children without child care and at risk of hunger. Instead of threatening to cut crucial supports for children and families, Congress should be working to expand investments in child nutrition and child care assistance programs. We must move now to fund both our child care system and CACFP because only by attacking both problems, from every angle, can we truly combat food insecurity for children.