Feeding Younger Kids in Need During the Pandemic
The federal government moved fairly quickly to grant waivers to schools when the COVID-19 pandemic began, allowing them to continue to serve food to students in need even as in-person classes were curtailed. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the government’s response in helping childcare providers in the same boat. Millions of younger children and their families across the country depend on childcare providers for nutritious meals, and the pandemic wreaked havoc on this system. In this episode, we speak to University of Michigan School of Public Health Assistant Professor Kate Bauer, a researcher who specializes in children’s nutrition, about what she and her colleagues found as they dug into this issue to try and make sense of it, and to provide some solutions.
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Bauer: The child care system in our country is broken. We are depending on a patched network, or not even a network, a broken network of small businesses to take care of our children, and they do not have the margins to be able to maintain their businesses during periods where they're closed. Before COVID hit the US, 46 million US children were receiving free and reduced price healthy meals through their childcares. When childcares across the country closed due to COVID, millions of those children no longer had access to healthy meals. Not only does that affect their nutrition, that then affects their family's financial resources, because those families then need to make up those meals that their children have lost from childcare.
Narrator: The COVID-19 pandemic has been a perfect storm in the United States, disrupting just about every aspect of everyday life. Many disadvantaged American families have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Among other factors, systems that were in place to keep millions of children healthy and fed have been adversely impacted. And to make matters worse, the full scope of the problem is not entirely known.
Hello and welcome to Population Healthy, a podcast from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. This episode is part of a series of special editions of our podcast focusing on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Kate Bauer is an assistant professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She studies the effects of nutrition and diet on young children and their families. She recently joined with nutrition researchers from around the country to try and get a handle on the problems faced by daycare providers and the families that rely on them for meals as the pandemic has forced many childcare providers to close their doors.
Bauer: Right when COVID hit the US in the early spring of last year, many nutrition policy researchers from across the country came together. We're mostly trying to discuss, what is even happening? What's happening in your state? How are children who are not going to school anymore getting fed? What's gonna happen with the WIC program where people can't come in for benefits anymore? And very rapidly also at the same time, the federal government was making a lot of changes that allowed a lot of these federal nutrition benefits to go to families without all the standard requirements of checking in in-person, they allowed school food to be sent home, lots of things like that.
But as this group of us from across the country we're just going to get a handle on things, several of us who work with young children are trying to understand how we feed low-income young children across the country. We're realizing, wait a minute, all of these child cares are closing, or in some states had their enrollments dramatically limited to allow for social distancing, why is no one talking about these millions of children who have lost nutritious meals because they lost child care? The federal government has tried to initiate several efforts to get children between the ages of zero to five pandemic EBT benefits, and unfortunately to date, it hasn't happened. So while we are doing wonderful things to make sure that older children are getting the nutritious food that they deserve while they're not attending school in person, we have not yet replaced the meals that young children have missed because they are not attending child care.
One of the first things we learned was that Congress allowed the USDA to offer states these waivers in the way the child and adult care food program is implemented. So, similar to school meals, childcare providers who had been providing this food through the federal government support, we're allowed to do things like grab and go for families, pre-package several meals over the week that parents could pick up. They were given waivers. No, you don't have to serve lunch at lunch time, you can give lunch away, that kind of thing. Which is great and some child care providers were able to do this, to pre-package meals and do everything safely and give meals to the children who are no longer attending. But what we realized mostly from conversations with various states because there's no data reporting infrastructure to really track this, is that most child care programs just do not have the capacity to continue to feed children. Even though the federal government was saying, oh, we'll give you these waivers and we will make this easier to do. Childcares aren't set up to pre-package a week's worth of meals. They don’t have staffing to distribute them out to families. Many of them just had to close right because without children attending, there's no tuition revenue to keep anything going. Childcare providers are barely getting by when they have full enrollment of children.
We very quickly realized it was near impossible to track all of this. Many states were doing things differently. Every state had different rules about who was closed. And so again, we just sort of hit this point where we realized we have to get whatever information we have out there quickly. At least state the problem that no one is paying attention to all these children who lost nutritious meals because of their child care closures. We don't know where they are. We don't know what they're eating. We don't know how their families are impacted by the loss of these meals. And then on the other side, the policy and practice side, we really wanna see more policies come out of the federal government and state governments to support child care and to support these families that both lost child care and lost these healthy meals that they were receiving through child care.
Narrator: We asked Bauer for some of the recommendations she and her colleagues have come up with to help alleviate this problem and get nutritious food to the kids and families who need it the most.
Our first recommended strategy is to offer pandemic EBT to children who are not receiving healthy meals through their childcares anymore. We recognize this is difficult because unlike the National School Lunch Program, school breakfast program, there is no consistent infrastructure across states to know which children were receiving benefits. So that is actually one of our long-term recommendations that we need the child and adult care food program to have similar investments to these other food programs, because then in times of national emergencies like this, we know which children are lost in the system because they're not attending childcare. Right now, we just don't have the infrastructure to know which children are no longer getting these healthy meals.
Our second recommendation is, and this may seem a little counter-intuitive, we want to see the child and adult care food program improved. So if more childcare organizations that are up and running and are caring for children enroll in the child and adult care food program, that gives those childcare organizations more financial stability. So they could perhaps weather emergency periods like this better, in addition, of course, to providing healthier food to children. So CACFP as a federal food program has well documented that there are many barriers to childcare programs enrolling in this Federal Food Program. There's fairly onerous documentation required, the reimbursements for food do not anywhere near cover the true costs of feeding children, so many childcare providers across the country, even though they're eligible to participate in the program and receive this financial assistance, say, this isn't worth my time.
Meanwhile, if we made it easier for these programs to enroll, they would have more sound financial footing. And especially if we gave them higher reimbursements for the food that they were serving, then we could have perhaps really protected many of the childcare’s in this country from having such financial crises when COVID hit. So we think it's really important to simplify the Child and Adult Care Food Program, reduce the reporting burden, increase reimbursement rates for food and get more providers on this program to give them more of the safety net in good and lean times.
And then our final suggestion comes down to, we need to support child care in this country more. We need to invest in child care, so that they aren't closing. There's many, many ripple effects of childcare’s closing in this country. Parents can't go to work, children are missing academic opportunity, social and emotional opportunities for development, and as we're saying, what's often forgotten is that they're missing nutrition opportunities. So we would like to see in these pandemic relief initiatives is much more attention, much more funding to support childcare’s across the country, so they're not closing, so they can support families, and so they can feed kids the healthy meals that they're designed to feed them.
Narrator: What are the next steps being worked on by the consortium?
Bauer: So our two initiatives at this point are to conduct two separate studies. One of them we’re going to talk to childcare providers across the country and ask them what they did. Did you feed children in the spring? What are you doing now? What are your major challenges, your concerns? What support do you need to feed children, both who are attending your program now in person and who aren't able to attend because you have limited capacity? And then a second is that we are looking at several states, Michigan included, to do a deeper dive as to what happened at the state level regarding feeding young children who had lost their meals due to childcare. So it's just a different methodological approach. We're gonna do interviews and document reviews because actually, I will say, Michigan was the first state to get pandemic EBT for their school aged children. They actually did an incredible job doing their best to get EBT benefits to every child that they could. So actually, here in Michigan, some young children who had lost their meals due to childcare were able to get pandemic EBT benefits because of the state-specific interpretation of the law.
Michigan specifically is quite a leader. So we're gonna be doing, again, a deep dive into states like Michigan to understand what resources and policies did they have that other states could really replicate to ensure that these young children continue to be fed since we unfortunately see no end to COVID in sight.
Narrator: This has been a special edition of Population Healthy, a podcast from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we’ll work to bring you analysis from our community of experts to help you understand what this public health crisis means for you. To stay up-to-date in between special edition episodes, be sure to check out our website publichealth.umich.edu, subscribe to our Population Healthy newsletter at publichealth.umich.edu/news/newsletter and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @umichsph.
In This Episode
Kate Bauer, PhD
Assistant Professor, Nutritional Sciences
Katherine (Kate) W. Bauer is an epidemiologist whose research focuses on identifying social and behavioral determinants of obesity and obesogenic behavior among children and adolescents, and the translation of this research into feasible and effective community-based interventions. Much of her work focuses on the role of families in children's and adolescents' obesity risk. She is also interested in the application of causal inference methodologies in pediatric obesity research.