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Janssen Hang, Executive Director of HAFA

Delicious Hmong ingredients and recipes can connect children in your care with cultural traditions and a healthy world of flavor — plus you can be reimbursed for those meals through the CACFP/Food Program!

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Have you ever purchased a traditional ingredient such as Hmong greens (Zaub Paaj) or lemongrass at your local farmers market and wanted to serve it to children you care for? Or prepared one of your favorite Hmong recipes and wondered if it could count as part of a Food Program meal? Serving culturally relevant traditional ingredients and recipes and produce fresh from one of Minnesota’s many local Hmong farmers can be an excellent way to introduce delicious foods and connect children in your care with Hmong cultural traditions. These items can also fit into the meal pattern of the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP, also known as “the Food Program”), which means you could be reimbursed for the meals you serve if you participate in the Food Program. 

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) runs the CACFP/Food Program, which provides reimbursement to providers for a maximum of two meals and one snack, or one meal and two snacks per day per child 12 years of age or younger. To receive reimbursement, providers must serve meals that meet specific meal pattern requirements based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The meal pattern has five components, including fruits, vegetables, milk, meats/meat alternates (proteins) and grains. It advises how much of each type of item to serve to children (see meal pattern insert on page 1 of this document), depending on their ages, and also has guidelines about the nutrition requirements and limits on sugar, fat and salt so that meals meet federal dietary recommendations. 

CACFP Meal plan example

Serving traditional Hmong foods is allowed in CACFP meals, and traditional foods can contribute towards reimbursable meals. Traditional Hmong items may not always be listed explicitly in the official USDA Food Buying Guide, but there is often a similar food that can be used to determine what part of the meal pattern an item satisfies. For example, if Hmong greens (Zaub Paaj) are not included in the Food Buying Guide, spinach is a similar included item you can use to confirm that Zaub Paaj counts as a vegetable and you should serve a 1/4 cup as a serving in a reimbursable meal. If it’s not clear how a traditional Hmong food would credit toward the meal pattern requirements, providers can get support to determine where it fits based on its nutritional profile. In Minnesota, the Department of Education works through sponsoring organizations to provide CACFP reimbursement to in-home early care providers. Sponsors are a great resource for further support to determine how to credit items, as they are the experts regarding reimbursement through the CACFP. Additionally, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service’s Regional Offices can provide technical assistance on a case by case basis. 

While the amount of a vegetable, fruit or protein to use as a serving is fairly easy to figure out looking at the meal pattern requirements, it can be challenging to know the serving size with more complex recipes that mix ingredients together. USDA has a database of approved recipes that are aligned with the meal pattern requirements to make sure they fit into reimbursable meals, but they don’t include many traditional Hmong recipes at this time. It is possible — though a little tricky! — to measure the right amounts to include in a recipe so it meets the requirements. In recent years, federal nutrition programs have recognized the importance of serving traditional foods as part of CACFP and other nutrition program meals, and they are adding more diverse culturally responsive recipes and items to their resources, as well as encouraging providers to serve meals from diverse cultural traditions. 

Kid enjoying Hmong meal

The CACFP/Food Program can also adapt to some traditional foodways. For example, some Hmong communities consider it taboo to serve fruit at the same time as the rest of the meal. Waiting until after the rest of the meal is finished to bring the fruit servings to the table would still meet the meal pattern requirements. 

From 2020-23, the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) worked together to support a cohort of Hmong in-home daycare providers on the East Side of St. Paul with weekly fresh produce through HAFA’s community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes. We saw the power Farm to Early Care programs can have to connect children to Hmong cultural traditions while giving Hmong farmers a new market into which to sell. 

To boost the long-term resources that providers have to purchase their meals, we shared information with providers in our cohort about the CACFP and the potential to receive reimbursement for meals they serve. Enrolling in CACFP can be intimidating, and immigrant providers, such as those in our cohort, face additional barriers when trying to navigate the paperwork and processes to join. Extra reimbursement money could be highly beneficial to providers wanting to serve healthy meals and purchase local, in particular since providers have reported that cost can be a barrier. At the same time, a larger food budget also makes it easier for farmers to receive a fair price for their produce. 

Our cohort of Hmong providers shared feedback on challenges and opportunities to participate in the CACFP (highlights are collected in the Reflections on the Child and Adult Care Food Program From the MN Farm to Early Care CSA Hmong Provider Cohort resource). Provider recommendations on how to address challenges for providers who want to serve Hmong foods included the following: incorporating diverse cultural dishes and recipes into CACFP standards; incentivizing culturally appropriate items; and explicitly adding culturally appropriate Hmong produce (for example, lemongrass, Hmong greens like Zaub Ntsuab and Zaub Paaj, etc.) to the lists of approved items and online entry portals. 

Additional Resources

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Funding for this project is provided in part by the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross® and Blue Shield® of Minnesota.