More than 3.6 million children are enrolled in early childhood education (ECE) centers that participate in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which provides nutritious meals and snacks to participants. To date, limited research has assessed menu development, meal/snack preparation, provider meal preparation-related training, and food purchasing at these early childcare centers. Using a nationwide sample of ECE centers, the research team, including Jamie Chriqui, Rebecca M. Schermbeck, and Julien Leider, has gathered data on food purchasing and preparation, and highlights areas for training and technical assistance to facilitate CACFP standards’ compliance.
1,343 centers located in 47 states and D.C. completed the food purchasing and preparation survey. More than one-third of the centers reported that menus were prepared by the center director/assistant director or by an on-site kitchen/food manager/cook. The majority of centers indicated that the person preparing the meals for the center had a food sanitation license, but few centers reported that the person preparing the meals had completed formal nutrition training.
Most centers purchased food from a food service provider, local grocery store, or warehouse store. Independent centers were more likely to purchase food and beverage (F&B) for meals from local grocery stores, whereas centers that were free/no cost or state-subsidized were more likely to purchase their F&B from a food service provider. Centers that had an on-site kitchen/food manager/cook prepare their meals were significantly more likely to purchase their F&B from local grocery stores or warehouse stores.
Implications for Policy and Practice
Childcare providers play a critical role in the development of healthy eating habits—habits that have lifelong health and wellness implications. As most centers in this study purchased food from a food service provider, local grocery store, or warehouse store, there is a potential opportunity to partner with these entities to make purchasing healthy foods easier. Many local groceries already have systems in place to help customers identify healthy F&B options. In addition, the Healthier Generation Store, a partnership between the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and Amazon that sells products meeting USDA Smart Snacks in School standards, may provide a model for a similar type of online store targeted at CACFP providers.
Additionally, the USDA and state agencies should continue to promote and encourage those preparing site menus and preparing meals and snacks to participate in online trainings through USDA or provided by the Institute of Child Nutrition.