Ashley Hopkinson / EdSource
A student helps to set the lunch table at a preschool in Lindsay Unified School District in Tulare County, Calif.

California’s stagnant wages and high cost of living, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, make it hard for child care providers to put fresh, healthy food on the table for young children. Unfortunately, despite efforts from community leaders and advocates, additional relief was excluded from the budget passed by the California Legislature last week.

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Franny Wong

Hunger crosses all ages, races and households in California. In San Francisco, parents pay some of the nation’s highest rents to keep a roof over their head and many pay more for child care than for their own college tuition. Food often comes secondary. Many parents barely scrape by and will skip meals so they can feed their kids.

Families who suffer from food insecurity often rely on meals provided outside of the home, such as meals provided at school or in child care. Young children consume up to three-quarters of their daily calories while in child care, and for many it is their only opportunity for a healthy meal. Yet for child care providers, whose incomes haven’t kept up with the cost of living, their reality is no different. Studies suggest that over half of child care workers rely on food stamps or other forms of government assistance to help get by and pay their own grocery bills. But these same caregivers are left to pull from their own pockets, most having very limited budgets, to put food on the table for the children they care for.

For many, the Child and Adult Care Food Program offers some relief. The federal program helps child care providers who serve eligible low-income children by offering a small reimbursement for every healthy meal or snack served to low-income children in their program. Child care providers receive 74 cents for snacks, a dollar or two for lunch or dinner. Although it sounds like a small amount, it goes a long way to helping child care providers put food on the table.

But food costs are much higher in California than other states while the federal assistance offered by the food program is the same for California as it is for all other (less expensive) states.

To bridge this gap, California used to help make up the difference with about ten million dollars in additional state funding. But after 35 years, the state cut its supplemental funding in 2012 — at the height of the recession — due to a statewide budget crisis.

This year, advocates pushed to not only bring back the state funding, but to increase it. They asked lawmakers to match what school districts currently receive: 24 cents for every breakfast or lunch served to income-eligible children. Unfortunately, even as the state’s fiscal outlook has improved, lawmakers decided to not restore this funding. Early insights suggest it was because the governor was not going to support any requests that would obligate the state to support a program on an ongoing basis. Instead, he looked to lawmakers to only move forward one-time funding requests.

Without the supplemental assistance from the state, it has become impossible for many child care and preschool providers serving our low-income communities to keep up with the cost of providing healthy meals that meet the federal nutrition standards of the program. Many childcare providers stopped participating after the state cut its funding because they simply could not afford to serve the food required under the program. As a result, participation rates are dropping in San Francisco and across the state. Estimates indicate that as many as 20,000 low-income California children have lost access to healthy meals through the program.

When childcare providers don’t participate in the program, not only do they lose help paying for food, they also lose access to important professional development opportunities that are made possible through the program, including in-person guidance on food service, meal planning, nutrition, budgeting, program management and record keeping

Ultimately the budget conference committee in Sacramento decided not to advance the proposal to bring back the state supplement for child care meals in the 2018-2019 state budget. It is disheartening that the leaders in the Legislature chose once again not to reinvest in this critical funding. Their decision means that, for another year, our youngest and most vulnerable community members will continue to lack access to the healthy and nutritious foods they need to grow, learn and lead long and healthy lives.

As California makes a transition into new leadership, it is imperative that our incoming governor recognizes the value of investing in the health and nutrition of our children. The long-term benefits of such an investment are far too great to ignore — as are the negative impacts should we continue to turn a blind eye to our caregivers and lower-income children.

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Franny Wong is a health and nutrition manager at Children’s Council San Francisco, a nonprofit organization that connects families with child care programs and other resources. 

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