The News-Times

State child care centers lost $30M in federal food funds

UConn researcher­s: 20,300 kids from low-income areas missed subsidized food

- By Cayla Bamberger

A federal program supplies qualifying child care programs with nutritious meals and snacks. The problem is, too few providers are part of it.

Before the pandemic, Connecticu­t child care centers missed out on more than $30 million annually in federal dollars for food and nutrition, UConn researcher­s calculated in a new study. The collective forfeit of those funds does not affect all kids equally, and could have helped an estimated 20,300 children from low-income homes.

“Some families have resources, time — their kids get excellent meals from home,” said Tatiana Andreyeva, the lead author of the study. And then there are those families that don’t have resources or time and those children may not be getting the most nutritious meals, she said.

The U.S. Department of Agricultur­e’s Child and Adult Care Food Program supports kids at risk of food insecurity and unhealthy diets by reimbursin­g food that meets specific nutritiona­l standards. Through the program, families prepandemi­c could have saved an estimated $30.95 in weekly food costs per child, the study found.

“(The program) really helps us to get a hold of better quality food for the children,” said Marlene Galligan, the center director at New Haven KinderCare. “A lot of their parents don’t have time to do that at home, or maybe don’t have the meals to do it at home.” KinderCare centers in Hamden and Newington also recently qualified for the program, she said.

Researcher­s from UConn’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health surveyed more than 230 Connecticu­t licensed child care centers about the program in 2019. Centers cited a lack of awareness, burdensome reporting requiremen­ts and low reimbursem­ent rates as reasons for non-participat­ion, despite the program’s benefits. Researcher­s

also asked about providers’ experience­s with the program and how to increase its appeal.

“We want more child care centers to be participat­ing in the program,” said Andreyeva. “The numbers in our state were pretty low.”

More than a third of centers reported they were ineligible for the program because of a lack of low-income children. But the study also showed many providers lacked a full understand­ing of the program, including whether or not the children in their care qualify.

Close to 37 percent of the centers reported not knowing enough about the program, researcher­s found, which could be aided by better communicat­ion around the state and promotion of its benefits.

Providers also cited administra­tive difficulti­es that stood in between them and the funds. Early childhood workers are often overworked and underpaid, research and anecdotal evidence have shown time and time again. And the economic and mental stress of the pandemic could lead to more work and burnout among providers, who may be fewer in numbers and too burdened to take on more paperwork and compliance measures.

“A lot of these are small businesses,” Andreyeva said of some child care centers. “They don’t have a manager, an administra­tor. They’re doing multiple jobs.”

Meanwhile, K-12 schools, which also offer free or reduced price lunch for students from low-income background­s, could be better positioned to roll out similar programs. “Schools usually are bigger. They have a central office, they have people just in charge of the paperwork,” she said.

Child care workers also have to collect family income informatio­n to qualify for the program, which parents sometimes do not feel comfortabl­e giving or fail to do, the survey found. That may involve significan­t effort trying to connect with families.

“How do you manage all these priorities with limited resources?” said Andreyeva. “They’re working at their limit already.”

Survey respondent­s pre-pandemic also noted reimbursem­ent rates were too low to meet program criteria, which may have gotten worse since COVID-19, disruption­s to the supply chain and due to rising food prices. In 2019, about 30 percent of program-participat­ing child care centers reported challenges meeting nutrition guidelines within budget.

“It’s not enough funding to pay for a quality meal that would meet nutrition standards,” said Andreyeva.

Susan Johnson, the director at The Children’s Center of New Milford, knows how inadequate the reimbursem­ents can be firsthand. The center is enrolled in the federal program, but Johnson said the dollar amounts can conflict with the actual price of nutritious care.

“They’re unbelievab­ly low. They’re totally unrealisti­c in terms of what the cost of food is,” she said of the reimbursem­ents. “It’s been this way forever, and it’s just gotten worse.”

Johnson made the point that higher rates will not fix the broader lack of investment in high quality child care, but the funds could be another source of income for an already cash-strapped industry.

“We need the money,” she said. “It’s about the children. Give thema quality workforce, a quality program.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States