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Access to Healthy Meals:
Research Review

About this Resource

This resource was created by Kevin, Michelle, and Veronica, 2021 interns at CACFP Roundtable. It is a product of an extensive academic literature review on access to healthy meals and child development. 


They analyzed access to healthy meals through three main lens: equity, quality of childcare, and the whole child’s development. These three themes are prevalent throughout the four subtopics, found on the outer circle. 


We hope this is a useful tool for understanding and communicating about the necessity of healthy meals for young children, which should be an urgent concern for everyone.

Note: This tool is best viewed on a desktop computer.

Click on the segments to learn more!



Nutrition is a crucial component of a young child’s health and development, and all children deserve to access healthful and culturally appropriate meals. Expanding CACFP in child care promotes equitable access to healthy meals by offering support to child care sites with the fewest resources. CACFP reduces costs for parents and provides and results in more nutritional options for children. Family-style meal service, as encouraged by CACFP, promotes cultural inclusivity and social learning. Furthermore, this kind of increased health equity is associated with economic growth. CACFP is an investment in equitable access to healthy meals for young children and will foster great returns on the economy.

Child Holding Fresh Produce

Culturally appropriate meals: meals that celebrate one's culture

Family-style meals: food is available on the table for individuals to share and choose their own portions


Whole Child

Children in the Garden

Food insecurity: a lack of consistent access to enough food to feed each member of a household

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES): potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years). Examples and more information from the CDC >>

Attachment: a way to describe the quality of a relationship between child and caregiver

Food availability and access to healthy meals influence all aspects of a child’s life. From their environment to their personal development, children greatly benefit from stable availability of nutritious foods. Trouble accessing meals, or food insecurity, can directly affect the child through malnourishment, under-development, and physical and cognitive stunting. Prolonged experiences with food insecurity can also affect emotional development and form lasting trauma leading to adverse childhood experiences (ACES). Children growing up with food insecurity have long-lasting impacts where they are more likely to experience negative academic outcomes, deviant social behavior, and health issues as an adult. Even if children are shielded from food insecurity, it can affect caregivers, which can strain the formation of healthy attachment between caregiver and child and is critical for early childhood development. All these factors, and more, can be improved by stable food availability and greater access to nutritious meals. A small investment into the alleviation of the food insecurity endemic creates a better future for the children, their families, and communities. 

Whole Child


Access to healthy meals and programs like CACFP play a large role in building the quality of child care, as well as the quality of meals served. CACFP provides meal reimbursements to child care settings and this alleviates food costs, allowing child care sites to invest those financial resources into a high standard of care. Furthermore, the CACFP offers resources, tools, training, and other professional support to oftentimes isolated child care providers and early childhood educators.


The quality of child care greatly affects children’s development and nutritious meals are an important component of high quality child care. Beyond the basic human need for food and water, meal time is a daily opportunity for children to practice motor skills, grow communication and cognitive skills, support social development, and build positive attachments to their caregivers. As the quality of child care and quality of meals served increases, there will continue to be better developmental outcomes for all children.

Child Picking Fruit

High quality child care: Not average, not “it will do” child care, but excellent child care that keeps children safe while their parents work and nurtures and develops children in ways that prepare them for school and beyond. Many different standards have been proposed and debated to define high quality care.

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