Vegan-at-Law: How Does the CACFP Food Program Affect My Vegan Child?


If you have a child in day care, you may have encountered some issues with your day care providing your child vegan meals and snacks. Most likely, if this has happened to you, it is because the day care is subsidized by the Federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).

The CACFP is a program of the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that provides aid to child and adult care institutions and family or group day care homes for the provision of meals and snacks. According to the USDA, the goal of the CACFP is to improve the health and nutrition of children and adults in the program, while promoting the development of good eating habits through nutrition education. More than 3 million children receive meals and snacks through the CACFP every day.

Although the CACFP is federally-funded, it is administered by the states. How each state runs and monitors the CACFP differs—some may have one state agency administer the program, while others may have smaller entities, such as a community organization, handle the local administration of the program.

Any institution participating in the CACFP is required to abide by the Crediting Handbook for the CACFP. Within this document, there is very detailed information as to what qualifies as “creditable foods,” which are foods that may be counted toward meeting the meal pattern requirements for a reimbursable meal. If a food item is not listed as a “creditable food,” then if an institution serves that food, they will not receive any financial assistance from the government for that item.

There are two components of the CACFP that are of particular importance to vegans—milk options and “alternative protein products (APP).”

Milk options: The CACFP pushes milk consumption, as do many federally-funded programs. The standard for the CACFP is for children over the age of two to be served: fat-free or low-fat milk, fat-free or low-fat lactose reduced milk, fat-free or low-fat lactose free milk, fat-free or law-fat buttermilk, or fat-free or low-fat acidified milk. The milk may be flavored or unflavored. Whole milk and reduced fat (2%) milk may not be served to participants over two years of age. Please note: breast milk is permitted as well for infants, but there are particular requirements for serving breast milk, which will be addressed in a future column. Notice that in that long list of milk options, not one of the options is a non-dairy milk. However, thanks to a memorandum issued by the USDA on September 15, 2011, clarification was given with respect to allowing the substitution of non-dairy beverages that are nutritionally equivalent to fluid milk (comparison based on cow’s milk) in cases of special dietary needs. Substitutions were always permitted for medical reasons, when accompanied by a doctor’s note, and religious reasons. The September 2011 memo made clear that parents or guardians may now request in writing non-dairy milk substitutions without providing a medical statement. The memo even mentions a vegan child as an example.

This may sound great, but there are two caveats: 1) under the CACFP, the only non-dairy milk that usually meets the nutritional requirements of the program is soy milk (CACFP state agencies have the discretion to identify appropriate substitutions that meet these requirements), and 2) such substitutions are at the option and the expense of the facility. Therefore, not every vegan family may benefit from this “exception” to the standard. For example, a soy-free vegan family would have a difficult time having the day care serve almond or hemp milk to their child in place of dairy milk.

“Alternative Protein Products (APP)”: APP are food ingredients that may be used to substitute in part or in full for meat, poultry, or seafood. These products must meet the specific requirements of the program, so not all meat-free options qualify. Included in the list of products that do not qualify are tofu, seitan, and tempeh. Before a facility subsidized by the CACFP uses APP, they should contact their FNS Regional Office or State agency.

In the Crediting Handbook for the CACFP, the following is a list of vegetarian options that do qualify as an APP: natural and processed cheese, cheese foods, cheese spreads, cottage cheese, eggs, yogurt, cooked dry beans and peas, mustard seeds, nut and seed butters, or any combination of these. As you can see, the list is not exactly vegan-friendly. The only options for vegans are beans and peas, mustard seeds, and nut and seed butters. Soy yogurt does not qualify as a yogurt substitute. And with the number of children who suffer from peanut and other nut allergies, many day cares do not permit nut products in their facility, thus limiting that option. One positive change over the past several years is that there is no longer a limit on the amount of APP that can be served. Although items such as veggie burgers and hummus may be served, the APP options available to vegans are still quite limited.

Fortunately, on January 15, 2015, the Department of Agriculture issued a proposed rule in the Federal Register to change meal pattern requirements to better align with the 2010 Guidelines for Americans, as required by the Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which will increase APP options in the CACFP. The most important change concerning vegans would be the addition of tofu as an APP. There is no certainty that this proposed rule will become a final rule, but I am hopeful the change will take place. Other positive proposed changes include the serving of a greater variety of vegetables and fruits, more whole grains, and less sugar and fat.

The CACFP program is not perfect, by any means, especially for vegetarian and vegan families. That being said, although you have to be proactive, since it isn’t the standard, there are options for vegetarian and vegan families. Hopefully, your day care and the state agency or community organization that runs your local CACFP program are willing to work with you and will be agreeable to serving your child food you want them to be served. If you encounter issues with your day care, let us know. We want to hear your story.

Have a question for Ashlee? Email her

Disclaimer: Although Ashlee K. Cartwright, Esq. is a licensed attorney, the content contained in this column is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to provide legal advice. Please understand that there is no attorney-client relationship between you and the columnist and/or website publisher. If you have a question about a specific or personal legal matter, please contact a local licensed attorney.

Posted in Advice Columns, Infants & Toddlers (0-3), Vegan-at-Law

Ashlee is a mom to three vegan cuties, lawyer, and animal advocate. She has been vegan since 2010. She and her husband are in the process of starting a microsanctuary for farm animals in Orange County, NY. You can send her your questions via email.