fb-pixel Skip to main content

Mass. day-care centers are missing out on federal aid for meals

Three of four day-care centers in Massachusetts are not enrolled in a government food program that reimburses the cost of healthy meals and snacks, reducing young children’s access to crucial sources of nutrition, a report has found.

In an analysis of statewide data, the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children found that thousands of children attend day-care facilities that do not receive reimbursements through the federally funded Child and Adult Care Food Program, which is overseen by the state’s education department. Many providers are unaware of the program or have chosen not to enroll because of the required paperwork, even though they likely are eligible, the nonprofit group said.

Advertisement



As a result, the children may be served less nutritious meals at ages when healthy eating is paramount, researchers said.

“When one-quarter of Massachusetts children are overweight or obese by the time they reach first grade, child care and preschool providers must marshal all available resources and programs to help children eat nutritious meals we know support early learning,” said Marie St. Fleur, the group’s president.

Studies suggest that centers who participate in the program serve nutritionally superior meals to those that don’t, with fewer servings of fats and sweets, the report stated.

Based in Boston, the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children is a research and policy group focused on early education. It will formally release the report Wednesday.

The group has been working with state education officials on efforts to publicize the program and make it easier for centers to apply.

“They need to get the word out,” St. Fleur said. “Some people we talked to didn’t even know about the program.”

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said in a statement that it “appreciates efforts to build awareness of this very important federal program. We look forward to . . . furthering our outreach, training, and expansion efforts.”

Advertisement



While the nutritional content of school lunches has drawn considerable attention, the day-care program is far less prominent, even though it serves some 3.3 million children nationally. Some day-care centers provide meals and snacks, while others require parents to pack food for their children.

About 220,000 children in Massachusetts are enrolled in early childhood education programs, and many spend more than eight hours a day in care. About 1 in 6 Massachusetts children lacks consistent access to nutritious food, the report notes.

Nonprofit centers are eligible for the program reimbursement. For-profit child care centers are only eligible if at least 25 percent of children in their care are from low-income families.

But more than 240 day-care centers that do not participate in the program are in working-class cities such as Brockton, Lawrence, Lynn, and Worcester, researchers found. Those centers care for as many as 5,000 children, the group found.

“They are the kids that need it most,” St. Fleur said.

More than 75 percent of family child-care providers do participate in the program through sponsors, but that number has declined, the report found. In 1996, about 7,000 family programs were enrolled, but by 2014 that number had fallen to 4,500.

“Studies show that children in programs that are participating are more likely to be in better health than children in programs not participating, yet administrative, regulatory and cost barriers serve as disincentives for programs to participate,” the report concluded. “There has not been a concerted effort to reach out to providers to identify solutions.”

Advertisement




Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.