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Snags In Subsidized Lunch For Little Learners

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 04 Jan 2013 03:34pm | comments
Federal funds are available to supplement early childhood nutrition. Still, very few providers participate. Some say its red tape keeping them away. Photo by Annie Gilbertson.
Federal funds are available to supplement early childhood nutrition. Still, very few providers participate. Some say its red tape keeping them away. Photo by Annie Gilbertson.

Federal funds are available to supplement early childhood nutrition. Still, very few providers participate. Some say its red tape keeping them away. Photo by Annie Gilbertson.

JACKSON, Miss. - Poor nutrition may be limiting students’ success long before they arrive in school.  Daycare centers don’t always have the fruits, veggies and whole grains required for young children to grow strong physically and academically. In Mississippi, where childhood obesity and school performance are the worst in the nation, childcare centers are hoping to cut the red tape and access federal subsidies.

At Kids Konnection in Richland, Mississippi, kids form a train to line-up for lunch.  Each student places their hands on the  shoulders of the classmate ahead of them.  Then the dozen two-year-olds are take their seats. Lunch here isn’t traditional fried Southern foods. It’s taco salad with sides of peach slices and corn. To wash it down, the classic:

“What’s that?” asks a supervisor.

“Milk!” the child responds.

These kids are getting a nutrient boost. They also may be getting a leg up in school. Research shows healthy diets are positively correlated with higher IQs.

Kids Konnection instructor, Lisa Roberts, says she can tell when kids are getting hungry, when they miss a meal or if they only ate junk.

“It interferes with the learning process,” says Roberts. “Like a donut, for instance, makes them very hyper and they don’t do anything but get in trouble.”

She says it shows when they are eating well, too.

“Well they are a lot more chipper,” says Roberts. “They aren’t so groggy and ill. Because a lot of time if they come in and are hungry, they don’t get along with anyone. But if they are full, they are happy and able to participate.”

The problem is healthy meals can be pricey. Federal incentives are available to help, but they’re not easy to tap into.

Donna Nicholson thumbs through a thick binder she uses to keep track of federal reporting. If she or her staff makes a mistake and uses the wrong serving size, they swallow the whole cost of the meal. Photo by Annie Gilbertson.

Donna Nicholson thumbs through a thick binder she uses to keep track of federal reporting. If she or her staff makes a mistake and uses the wrong serving size, they swallow the whole cost of the meal. Photo by Annie Gilbertson.

“Kind of your thought is, I don’t want to deal with another agency and red tape,” says  Donna Nicholson, Kids Konnection owner, along with her husband Clint.

Clint chimes in, “The paperwork is intimidating,” and Donna agrees.

Run by the USDA, the program is called the Child and Adult Care Food Program. It reimburses part or the entire cost of balanced, healthy meals and serves more than 3 million children nationwide.

Carol Burnett, of the Mississippi Low-Income Childcare Initiative says the Nicholsons are not alone – many find applying for the program intimidating, She says the travel costs for required training and onerous paperwork make it a nonstarter for many centers, and state overseers often overstress the consequences of making mistakes.

“And I think they do it because they want to make sure centers don’t get into trouble,” says Burnett. “But the consequence is also, that centers see it and think, ‘I couldn’t possibly handle that,’ and just chose to stay away from it.”

A few months back, the Nicholsons decided to bite the bullet and start the training and reporting required for approval. Donna Nicholson says it’s a lot of math.

“For instance, when we do spaghetti, based on the number of kids we have, we used five pounds of ground turkey,” she says, moving her finger across a spreadsheet in binder a few inches thick. “Then we had green beans. So we used one number 10 can of green beans, which fed enough for the children. One number 10 can of the pears. Two pounds of spaghetti noodles and two and half gallons of the milk. That met all of the requirements we were supposed to have.”

The Nicholsons are leery of making mistakes – say serving too few pears in comparison to strict federal standards. Mistakes mean they’ll be forced to eat the cost of the whole meal. But Clint says, overall, he understands why the government needs to check up on them.

Research shows healthy diets may improve educational outcomes. Photo by Annie Gilbertson.

Research shows healthy diets may improve educational outcomes. Photo by Annie Gilbertson.

“If you didn’t have the checks, people would get the money and they wouldn’t serve the kids the appropriate amounts of food,” he says.

Despite the challenges, enrollment in the program is on the rise in Mississippi. 37 new centers were added last year. But there is lots of room to grow. In total, only 38% of Mississippi’s 1,800 childcare centers participate. Burnett’s organization, the Mississippi Low-Income Childcare Initiative, is hoping to increase enrollment by offering bookkeeping and support services.

Then caregivers can focus on the next challenge – getting kids to eat what’s on their plate.

This report was produced in collaboration with Jackie Mader of The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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Federal funds are available to supplement early childhood nutrition. Still, very few providers participate. Some say its red tape keeping them away. Photo by Annie Gilbertson.


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