UW Today

April 25, 2011

Federal subsidies for child nutrition: More funding is better

More than 3.2 million children are enrolled in child-care programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agricultures Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).  The program supports child nutrition through reimbursements for food based on a two-tier system, with some home child-care providers receiving a higher rate of reimbursement than others.

A new study from University of Washington (UW) researchers found that child-care providers who received higher reimbursements spent more on food, and the food was of higher nutritional quality than the food purchased by providers who received lower reimbursements.  The study, “More nutritious food is served in child-care homes receiving higher federal food subsidies,” is published in advance online in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Healthy foods contain more whole grains, vitamins and minerals.

Healthy foods contain more whole grains, vitamins and minerals.Scott Bauer, USDA

The UW Center for Public Health Nutrition has previously documented that better quality diets are more costly than less nutritious diets and that there is a rising disparity in the price of healthful foods. In this new study, researchers conclude that government programs can promote healthy diets for young children.

Monsivais, Donna Johnson, UW associate professor of health services and associate director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition, and colleagues studied a sample of 60 child-care providers in King County, Wash., between July 2008 and September 2009.  Thirty providers in both higher and lower reimbursement levels were recruited for the study. The study was coordinated through the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which is responsible for CACFP in Washington state.

Menus were analyzed by standardizing foods and beverages to portion sizes appropriate for children three to five years of age.

Food expenditures were calculated using food shopping receipts. Among the child-care providers, food spending varied from $1.00 to $4.26 per child per day.  But as a group, providers who received the higher reimbursement spent significantly more on food ($2.36 per child per day) than those who received lower reimbursement ($1.96 per child per day).  More importantly, researchers found that the higher reimbursement group served foods that were richer in fiber, potassium, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, zinc and folate.   Higher reimbursement providers were also more likely to serve protein-rich foods and whole grains.

Previous research found that CACFP helps children in child care eat more healthfully, but the new findings indicate that more funding for this program could improve nutrition even more.  The researchers acknowledge that the call to raise funding for federal programs during a tight budget cycle could be a hard sell. However, with national attention focused on preventing obesity and increasing awareness about the need for healthy diets, they also said that they are hopeful the new research will keep the topic on the public policy radar.

“Our eating habits are set from a very early age.  Increasing our investments in programs that we know can promote the health of young children is always a smart investment” said Monsivais.

President Barack Obama signed into law the Child Nutrition reauthorization measure on December 14, 2010. Entitled the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, it improved eligibility rules so that more child care homes can use the CACFP program and made important reforms in the nutritional quality of food served in schools and child care, among other provisions.  Programs including the Administrations “Lets Move” initiative aim to increase awareness about support for the act and increased funding, healthy food and nutrition.

The Center for Public Health Nutritions work on the project was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundations Healthy Eating Research Program.