A Child Care Guide to Food Programs


The goal of this document is to help child care center owners understand the basics of child care food programs. This is a beginner’s guide to food programs for the child care industry. One of the largest food programs in the United States is the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). CACFP provides aid to child care institutions and family or group day care homes for the provision of nutritious foods that contribute to the wellness, healthy growth, and development of young children, and the health and wellness of older adults and chronically impaired disabled persons. 1

CACFP provides more than 3.3 million children nutritious meals and snacks each day.

Many licensed public or private nonprofit child care centers, Head Start programs, and outside-school-hours care centers participate in CACFP. For-profit centers that serve lower income children may also be eligible.

CACFP reimburses child care centers at free, reduced-price, or paid rates for eligible meals and snacks served to enrolled children, targeting benefits to those children most in need. 2

Food Program Administration

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Food and Nutrition Service administers the CACFP through grants to states. The Program is administered by the State educational agency or another agency designated by the State.

Terms to Know


    Child and Adult Care Food Program

  • FNS

    Food and Nutrition Service

  • FSMC

    Food Service Management Procurement

  • SNAP

    Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

  • TANF

    Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

  • USDA

    United States Department of Agriculture

Is My Center Eligible?

A child care center must meet eligibility requirements to participate in the Food Program. To be eligible, the center must:

  1. Provide nonresidential care services (except emergency shelters);
  2. Be licensed or approved by Federal, State, or local authority or be alternately approved by demonstrating compliance with State, local, or CACFP child care standards; and
  3. Be public, nonprofit, or for-profit.

Public Centers

Public centers include those run by Federal, State, or local government, such as centers run by public schools and Community Action Programs.

Nonprofit Child Care Centers

The CACFP regulations require all nonprofit child care centers to have tax exempt status under the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) of 1986. Centers do not need to have "501(c)" status in order to participate as a nonprofit center; any Internal Revenue Service (IRS) nonprofit status is acceptable. Churches are exempt automatically if they meet the requirements of section 501(c)(3) of the IRC under "organized for a religious purpose."

For-profit Child Care Centers

A privately owned for-profit child care center may only participate in the Program if at least 25 percent of the children in care (enrollment or licensed capacity, whichever is less) are eligible for free or reduced-price meals or receive benefits from Title XX of the Social Security Act, and the center receives compensation from funds granted to the States under Title XX. Each for-profit center must meet the 25 percent requirement every month in order to be eligible to claim meals. However, there is no requirement that an appropriately enrolled Program participant be in attendance, or participate in a meal, at any time during the claim month.

Head Start Centers

The Federal Head Start Program is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It is dedicated to providing child development services to low-income children and their families. Head Start centers that are licensed or approved to provide day care services are required to participate in the CACFP.

Are centers required to serve meals at specific times?

There are no Federal requirements regarding the timing of meal service; however, States must approve meal service times and may establish meal time requirements. 3

Approval Meal Types for Traditional Child Care Centers

Only the meal types specified in the child care center's agreement that are served in compliance with the meal pattern requirements may be claimed for reimbursement. The center may choose from the following meal types: breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, and supper. Independent centers may be approved to claim for reimbursement, a daily maximum of two meals (breakfast and/or lunch and/or supper) and one supplement (snack), or two snacks and one meal, to each enrolled participant in attendance.

Reimbursement Rates

Rates are adjusted annually each July, as required by the statutes and regulations governing CACFP. Adjustments are made based on:

  • The national average payment rates for meals and snacks served in child care centers, outside-school-hours care centers and at-risk afterschool care centers.
  • Food service payment rates for meals and snacks served in day care homes.
  • Administrative reimbursement rates for sponsoring organizations of day care homes, to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index.

Claims for Reimbursement

Reimbursement funds are made available to the States from the USDA. To receive reimbursement, participating independent centers must have an agreement with the State agency and must submit claims to that State agency. Claims for reimbursement can only be paid for approved meal types and must report information in accordance with the financial management system established by the State. All records used to support a claim must be retained for three years after the submission date of the final claim for the fiscal year. Reimbursement rates are based on a formula established by Congress.

Computing Reimbursement

Regulations provide three methods for computing reimbursement, one of which will be assigned by the State agency at least annually:

  1. Claiming percentages;
  2. Blended per meal rate; or
  3. Total monthly counts of the actual number of meals by type served each day to children eligible for free, reduced-price, or paid meals. 4

Automatic Eligibility

There are instances in which child care participants are given automatic eligibility for free meals regardless of income: 5

  1. For a child who is a member of a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) household or who is a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipient.
  2. Recent amendments and laws have allowed for automatic eligibility for foster children and children who are enrolled in Head Start and Early Head Start.
  3. Residential children in a participating emergency shelter's food service will be automatically eligible for free meals and snacks, without further application.