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. Effective October 1, 2017, updated CACFP meal pattern standards required participating child care centers to serve more whole grains, a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, and less solid fats and added sugars. Using a nationwide sample of ECE centers, the research team, including Jamie Chriqui, Julien Leider, and Rebecca M. Schermbeck, conducted an assessment of nonhome-based CACFP-participating ECE centers’ awareness of and reported readiness for implementing these updated standards.
1,343 centers located in 47 states and D.C. completed the CACFP readiness survey. The majority of these centers reported being ‘‘very’’ prepared to make changes, to have ‘‘very much’’ begun implementing the standards, and needing at least ‘‘some’’ additional time and money to implement the standards. Half of the centers reported needing at least ‘‘some’’ additional staff for implementation.
Most of the centers reported meeting the beverage standards/best practices for fresh water availability, never serving flavored milk, serving 100% juice less than twice per day, and never serving fruit drinks or regular soda. The majority of centers reported meeting the standards for only serving low-sugar cereals and 100% whole grains, serving a fruit or vegetable snack at least once per day and providing at least one serving each of dark green leafy vegetables, red or orange vegetables, starchy vegetables, and other vegetables at least once per week. Nearly three-quarters of the centers reported meeting the best practices for serving processed meats less than once per week.
Centers located in states with enhanced CACFP standards were less likely to report needing additional time to implement or facing staff opposition to the standards. Centers that were free or state-subsidized were more likely to report being ‘‘very prepared’’ to make changes and were less likely to report needing additional money or staff for implementation.
Implications for Policy and Practice
This was the first survey of nonhome-based, CACFP-participating ECE centers nationwide. The findings provide encouraging insights as to center-reported readiness for implementing the updated federal standards and highlight opportunities for education and training, particularly of smaller, independent centers that are not corporate owned, Head Start affiliated, or with a Federal Food Program sponsor. During this transition year, it will be important to provide centers with the necessary training and technical assistance to ensure that all centers can comply with the federal regulations.