If there is one issue most Americans would agree on right now, it’s that we should protect our youngest children from hunger during the Covid-19 crisis. And yet the pandemic-related closure of child care facilities in California and across the country means hundreds of thousands of infants and young children may not be getting the free meals they regularly depend on.
Meals are an important, but often unrecognized, component of child care. Similar to school meals, child care meals help provide our youngest students with nutrients to ensure their healthy growth and development. Not all child care providers offer meals, but many participate in the federal government’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). The program provides federal funding for serving healthy meals, including infant formula and baby food, for free or at a reduced-price to about 200,000 children in California alone.
When child care providers had to make the difficult decision to close to limit the spread of coronavirus, it meant facing another difficult choice: whether to continue to feed the children in their care. Federal policymakers have taken a number of actions to strengthen the nutrition safety net for young children and students during the pandemic, but some of the solutions won’t reach our youngest learners. One good thing the federal government did was provide new flexibility for many child care providers so they could use their CACFP funding to provide “grab-and-go” meals to children.
The positive impact of this decision is clear if you visit one of the 50-plus Bay Area child care centers operated by Kidango, an early learning nonprofit. After Kidango had to close its centers in March, it faced a difficult and urgent question: how to continue to support more than 4,000 families with young children, many of whom were struggling because of the economic impacts of the pandemic. Kidango took quick action to provide grab-and-go meals and other essentials like diapers and baby formula to families in need.
As the organization continues to respond to a surge of community need, thank you notes from parents reveal how critical the grab-and-go meals are for families. “Being a single mother with my hours cut has been tough. There were times where my son was very hungry and the food supplied here helped so much,” one mother wrote.
Kidango and other providers across the country are scrambling to help families and young children at this uncertain time. Kidango also transformed its services to reopen seven centers to provide emergency child care for essential workers. Through “virtual home visits,” Kidango staff check in weekly with families about their needs and challenges during the pandemic, while connecting them to available resources. And now Kidango has reopened all of its child care centers to families—but with smaller class sizes to reduce the risk of coronavirus spreading.
But we can only do so much. As the Covid-19 crisis continues, and as we face the prospect of ongoing outbreaks, closures and wait lists into the fall, the federal government needs to take stronger action to ensure that our youngest children aren’t going hungry.
As part of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act enacted in March, Congress created the Pandemic-EBT program to help children who lost access to free or reduced-price school meals due to school closures. In recognition of that loss, the program provides food benefits for families to purchase groceries for their children. Unfortunately, many children who lost access to federally funded meals because of child care closures are not eligible for Pandemic EBT. As Congress attempts to reach a deal on a new coronavirus relief package, urgent action is needed to fix this obvious gap in safety-net support for children and families in this crisis.
Congress also needs to boost other forms of emergency food support for families with young children. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, and known as CalFresh in California) is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the first line of defense against hunger for young children. More than 496,000 California children under 4 participate in CalFresh, and applications are surging due to spiking unemployment. It is vital that Congress prioritize a temporary boost to SNAP until the economy improves, as was done in the last recession. Last but not least, Congress should also approve a temporary increase in benefits provided under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and continue to enable families to enroll via phone and video in the program. The program provides critical benefits for millions of women, infants and children under age 5 who are considered at nutritional risk.
This is an all-hands-on-deck moment when it comes to supporting our youngest children and their families to stay fed and healthy. Child care facilities and their staff in California and nationwide are doing their level best to respond to the needs of the children in their care. It’s time for the federal government to do more. We owe it to our youngest children to protect them from hunger during this pandemic. They need our leadership—and our love.
Michele Stillwell-Parvensky is the vice president of advocacy at Kidango, a leading early childhood non-profit that serves thousands of low-income children and families, helping ensure every child is on a path to thrive in kindergarten and life.
Melissa Cannon is senior advocate at California Food Policy Advocates, a policy and advocacy organization dedicated to increasing Californian’s access to nutritious, affordable food, where she leads the organization’s work in early childhood.