The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and its related At-Risk meal program are U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food programs created so that children up to age 18 can access healthy, federally-funded meals outside of the traditional school day. (“At-Risk,” in this context, refers to the challenge of meeting nutritional needs when kids are neither in school nor at home.)
Schools and other organizations that host children and youth programs are eligible to receive federal reimbursements for meals and snacks based on certain criteria including thresholds of children eligible for free and reduced-price school meals, standards of educational or enrichment programming, compliance with state and local laws/codes, and USDA nutrition standards. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) administers the program.
Background and Eligibility
The USDA inaugurated the program in 1968. In 2015 the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act instituted nutrition standards to guarantee that the program delivered food that was healthy and balanced throughout the day.
Based on previous year school data, school and activity sites are eligible for CACFP/CACFP At-Risk support when over 50% of children enrolled in the school attendance area are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
After school or out-of-school times pose a challenge for children who are hungry and yet participating in activities, such athletics, drama, debate and other special interest clubs, 4-H and other extra-curricular pursuits.
Schools and other sites with CACFP-eligible children face numerous implementation challenges. The program has complex tracking and reporting requirements, utilization and access to the program is rising, and relatively few sites offer the program. Other issues include limited administrative hours and staffing challenges for food service workers. Compliance requirements are cumbersome, there is a shortage of the required program sponsors and little program awareness.
Working in consultation with our colleagues at MDE, Hunger Impact Partners’ leadership identified two initial strategies to feed hungry children within the CACFP/CACFP At-Risk framework.
First, we are increasing enrollment of licensed child care centers in order to improve the rate of meals consumed beyond the current level of 25%. Minnesota has over 430 sites where at least half of the children are eligible for meals. This translates to approximately 26,520 food-insecure kids. With its stakeholders, Hunger Impact Partners is: developing strategies for raising program awareness of available enrollment process support; identifying and helping to pre-qualify sites through proprietary data analysis; developing and supporting sponsors through an evolving partner network of hub organizations; building success stories and awareness; and facilitating nutrition education, meal planning and service.
Second, we are pushing to enlist greater numbers of after-school activities in the CACFP At-Risk meal program at sites that already participate in CACFP and also to move more programs from snacks, which generate less reimbursement money and give kids less food, to serving more substantial suppers.
The At-Risk program is new to Minnesota and needs to build demand and enrollment. Only a small percentage of eligible school sites participate (though community sites have been very engaged). Well over half of children enrolled in after-school programs are eligible to claim meals according to program guidelines.
In partnership with our stakeholders we are taking the following steps to increase participation in CACFP At-Risk: raising awareness of the program and greater opportunity reflected in supper versus snack service; reaching out to after-school academic programs in schools and communities; working with summer feeding sites to offer CACFP suppers as well; migrating existing snack participation to supper or adding supper service to a program; and designing an incentive initiative.
Hunger-Free Minnesota, HIP’s parent organization, recognized the importance of schools in facilitating CACFP. They have the basic infrastructure in place for feeding children and often serve as the base for athletics and clubs like debate, robotics, honor societies, school government, and others. As HIP’s focus narrowed to feeding kids, we reached an agreement with the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) to fund a position within its Culinary and Nutrition Services tasked with expanding CACFP/CACFP At-Risk access, adding sites, increasing participation, and facilitating the draw-down of USDA reimbursement dollars.
In December 2014 MPS promoted Sara Eugene, a dietetic specialist in the system since 2012, to the newly-created role of Extended School Meals Coordinator. Eugene, a St. Paul native and a 2007 graduate of the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, began her work with the opinion that “I know that once a child is fed good, quality food, successful learning can take place,” and added (in a University of Minnesota alumna profile) that “I love that it’s my job as part of the MPS team to make that possible. My passion and my work are one in the same.”
Her accomplishment has been significant. When Eugene began her job in the 2014-2015 school year, the program served five sites, all of them schools. Average monthly meals served and reimbursement revenue were modest. Two academic years later, MPS was serving an average of 52,000 meals and claiming $140,000 per month at 68 school and community sites.
The program has had ripple effects in the community:
- As a result of MPS partnering with the YMCA Beacons Program at Roosevelt High School to provide after-school food, money in Roosevelt’s budget originally allotted for food was used to hire two additional YMCA staff members.
- The Athletic Director at Patrick Henry Senior High school noted that participation in the winter sports/tutoring programs has increased because students know they can rely on a hot meal after school.
- The Police Athletic League was able to divert budget money allocated for food to enriching its after-school programs. University of Minnesota interns who volunteer with PAL are also gaining valuable experience with federal meal programs reporting by completing check off sheets and attendance checks.
Eugene attributes success in the pilot program to her connections inside the Department of Education and with community advocates. “The primary difference,” she explains, “has been knowing who to connect with regarding existing after-school programs that may need food.” She confers with staff at sites, making sure that they know the rules and follow the reporting requirements, and gains their trust and willingness to share information about improvements. The better these relationships are the more likely it is that the related programs will meet and exceed mission expectations.
She points out that none of the sites now serving food “were ‘created’ for solely that purpose … [they were all] existing programs that had been either not providing food or providing food out of their own budget.” The fact that kids were already congregated in a setting made her work, as she put it, “easy(ish)” –the audience was already there at the table.
Hungry for Wins: Food to Fuel Your After-School Life
When a child eats well throughout the day, the benefits are significant and obvious. Adults—coaches, activity directors, and meal coordinators—see the difference. Hungry for Wins is our special project devoted to increasing participation in At-Risk meal programs. You can’t perform well without fuel in your tank, whether you’re playing softball, chess, or your first leading role in a school musical.
“The after-school dinner program for athletes is a great success,” note a soccer coach at South High School. “Participants gravitated to the dinner line feeling energized and comfortable. They were able to eat and spend time together in a welcoming atmosphere. Most students do not eat after lunch and need nutrition later in the day especially if they are playing sports into the evening. Knowing they have a meal after practice allows them to work harder during extracurricular activities, transition into their academic pursuits, and relinquish their fear of going to bed without dinner. From my experience, I am in full support of growing the dinner program. It means a lot to the kids.”
A dinner coordinator at Henry High School amplified the coach’s observations: “Every day I’m there students tell me how awesome the program is and how thankful they are. It warms my heart to hear how good the food is. Also, a student mentioned that she was going to blog the district to let them know how thankful she is for the dinner program. I’m thankful for the opportunity to work this program.”
“The dinner program fills a huge void in the nutritional development of our athletes,” echoed an athletic director at Roosevelt High School. “Prior to the dinner program, our athletes were practicing and playing on empty stomachs which reflected in less productivity and less energy in their play. The dinner program is the MVP!!”
Visit our Hungry for Wins web site for more information.
Only 4 percent of At-Risk After-School Meals are provided to eligible youth
Market: School-based programs with education component and those utilizing the Community Eligible Provision (CEP) for universal meals, youth programs and after-school networks in 200 severe-need areas
Pool of Children: 145,273, targeting 95,978 kids
Focus: Scholarships for student advocates
2018 Results: 1,870,776 new meals and $4,326,482 in revenue reimbursements