Recommendations to improve free nutrition program for Illinois children 

A federal program that reimburses child care settings for meals and snacks for young children is highly underused in Illinois, meaning many kids who could be getting nutrition assistance are missing out. A recent study from the University of Illinois Chicago provides recommendations for boosting participation among low-income urban and rural centers. 

The program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is much like the federal school lunch program but aimed at children from birth to age 5 who are in early child care and education centers, including in-home day cares. Research has shown that the program can reduce food insecurity and improve dietary intakes for children, but the number of centers and day cares enrolled in the program has been declining. This is true nationally as well as in Illinois and is consistent with other federal nutrition assistance programs, such as SNAP. 

The UIC researchers conducted a qualitative study of 35 child care providers in low-income areas of Illinois to better understand barriers to enrollment and ongoing participation. They identified a number of potential improvements in a paper in the American Journal of Public Health

For example, the team recommends that the CACFP be better promoted across the state via outreach and communication. There should also be more technical assistance during the registration process, which can be unnecessarily burdensome. The researchers also suggest increasing reimbursement rates for meals and snacks and being more flexible with the specific food requirements. For example, one provider told the researcher that it’s hard to find the required 1% milk in their Chicago neighborhood. 

“These recommendations are offered at a critical time given the fragile state of the early childcare infrastructure both in Illinois and nationwide, which was exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the researchers write. Removing barriers that make these programs hard to access is one of many possible equity-driven strategies to improve public health. 

The study’s authors from the UIC School of Public Health and the Institute for Health Research and Policy are Yuka Asada, Rebecca Schermbeck and Jamie Chriqui, along with research assistant Kendall Thiede. 

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