One of the major sources of support for providing nutritious food to young children is through a program that is not well known. The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) is funded through the USDA Food and Nutrition Services and is part of the safety net to improve access to food and a healthy diet to at-risk populations. Nationally more than 4.2 million children benefit from the program through their child care providers, and we are fortunate to have access to the program in our region.
The Winston Prouty Center began sponsoring CACFP regionally in 2017 after merging with Windham Child Care Association. Last year 239 children received 115,867 healthy meals and snacks locally through 29 home-providers who participate. As a sponsor WPC provides support, training and oversight to child care providers who want to use the resource. Providers who follow the food guidelines and document what they are doing get reimbursed for the food they buy each month. Many programs provide at least a snack and find it worthwhile to jump through a couple hoops to get paid for what they are already doing. As Amaryah Pendelbury, owner of The Nature Place and a participant in the food program, said in a recent interview, “Participating in the CACFP helps normalize healthy food at our program and helps me to be able to provide for the children in my care. I love participating in the food program because I can see all the good it does. Children with special dietary needs can see other children eating the same or similar foods as them, helping them not feel so singled out. The children are more willing to try new foods when they see their peers trying them too.”.
Why is good nutrition so important in the early years? One reason is because it is directly related to brain development. Inadequate brain growth can have a lasting impact on a child’s behavior, language and fine motor development, and ultimately lead to poorer school performance, a predictor for future success. A second reason to highlight good nutrition in the early years is to help establish eating habits which lead to good health, including a healthy weight. There has been a lot of focus on what some call the “epidemic” of childhood obesity and with multiple factors identified as possibly contributing. Studies show that if you are overweight as a child you are morel likely to be overweight as an adult. Obesity can shorten life expectancy and increase the risk of health problems like sleep apnea and liver disease.
One of the challenges for some people face is having easy access to nutritious foods. You might take for granted that you have a car which allows you to get to a grocery store that has a lot of options to choose from, or that you have a full kitchen where you can store food and cook your own meals. Some families primary source of groceries may be the corner convenience store where it is easier to get a bag of potato chips than an apple for a snack. Other families may just have a microwave and no reliable way to keep food cold due to their living circumstance. This make it very difficult to prepare anything other than pre-packaged foods which may have levels of sugar, sodium and other ingredients without much nutritional value. This is an excellent example of how a program like CACFP can help children who are at-risk nutritionally. Not only do they have access to nutritious food, they also learn about and get to try different foods that they may not otherwise encounter. Being exposed to a variety of options broadens children’s food horizons and contributes to the development of healthy eating habits.
Feelings around food can be complicated, and it is easy to be judgmental about what people eat. Staying open and curious is agreat technique for engaging with children and their families about food and keeping the long game in mind might mean not getting in a power struggle over whether it is ok to have a cookie. Healthy eating habits include developing healthy feelings around food, too, so avoid shame and withholding as mechanisms to try to teach good eating.
Setting up children for success means considering the multiple factors that contribute to their optimal development, including good nutrition. Programs like CACFP are an essential part of how we help children get the food they need to grow into their healthiest selves.