How do you provide nutritious meals for the children in your care on a tight budget?
Looking back on the over 20 years they have been serving food to children, Rose Smith, owner and executive director of Trinity House Christian Child Care, said, “I don’t know how we did it but we did. It wasn’t easy. We had to improvise, react, overcome, but we made it work some kind of way.” The challenge Rose and her staff faced is a common one, how to ensure the children in their care were fed nutritious meals daily and stay within a tight budget. For almost all of those 20 years, they were preparing every meal using a microwave and a small toaster oven. At first, they grew from a family child care home to a small center and were serving around 30 children, but since opening the larger child care center, the challenges grew, and they are now feeding 70 children on average and in the summer even more. On top of the limited equipment, they were funding 100% of the meals themselves.
They also fell into the same meal patterns as many child care programs, foods like chicken nuggets, chicken patties, fish sticks, Spaghetti O’s and ravioli out of a can. They served a lot of processed foods, but reflecting on that Rose said, “It was on a budget, and we had to do what we had to do.” Even though their center was eligible to participate in CACFP (Child and Adult Care Food Program), they didn't apply. They were scared. Rose knew a lot of paperwork is required, and a mistake could result in the federal program taking back reimbursements.
“I heard that it was a lot of paperwork and very time consuming. As a director we already wear so many hats. I thought it was going to be too much to do the food program, because of the time and all of the extra shopping, even storing all of the food that you have to buy for the month. And it is federally funded. I was really skeptical. I didn’t want to do anything that would get me in any kind of trouble. I was afraid I would not do something right or not claim something right. The federally funded part scared me a little bit, because I just didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t according to policies and procedures.”
Joining the Child and Adult Care Food Program with the help of 4-C
Child care providers do not have to navigate applying and managing the food program alone. The program also allows for a sponsoring agency, like 4-C. Tamecia Smith, Director, said, “They brought it to our attention that it would be a really good benefit for us. Then when 4-C gave us more information and a list of all of the services they provided, we saw that we wouldn’t have to do so much paperwork. But it was almost like this is too good to be true.”
As a CACFP sponsor, 4-C collects information, files the claim, and provides the program with a software system that makes it easier to maintain all of the records required. The provider’s level of commitment is key in making it all work. Dawn Thompson, Nutrition Manager at 4-C, said, “The directors at Trinity House absorbed everything. They were open to knowledge about meal planning and meeting regulations, tracking information and purchases, and purchasing appropriate food items. They were prepared with spreadsheets. They provided us with everything we needed to help them. When we met I kept telling them, ‘You can do this. We can do this.’”
The food program is a wonderful asset to child care providers. The food program makes it to where I can supply healthy nutritious meals for my children in care. We are very fortunate to be offered this program.
The food program has helped my center be able to make better food purchases and to eliminate highly processed food. The food program schedule keeps us consistent, and there is less fuss at meal times because the kids know when to expect it.
We’ve been partnering with 4-C through the CACFP since 2013. I get super excited to purchase all sorts of healthy foods for the children and never have to worry about the cost. This program is truly a blessing!
4-C’s knowledge of the Food Program is outstanding. Their expertise helps me daily to provide the best nutritional meals at my Daycare. The reimbursements provide the funds needed to ensure the children receive the best and most wholesome meals available.
Trinity House is now going on its second year in the program. “It has been a life saver and an amazing experience. The fear that I had was totally unfounded. I really can’t believe I did that to myself,” said Rose. “We have been in this business 20 years and never did the food program. So what has surprised us is that I was thinking it was this big scary monster, and it really isn’t. If you are doing what you are supposed to do according to rules and regulations, claiming your kids, buying what you are supposed to buy, and serving what you are supposed to serve, it’s not an issue at all.”
In a business like child care where resources can be scarce, the reimbursements from the food program can put much needed funding back in the budget. For Trinity House, that means an extra $5,585 a month, on average, or around $67,000 a year. Now their cabinets and refrigerator are stocked full; they have built additional storage to hold the extra food supplies they need for the month; and a donation from GE gave them new kitchen appliances. “It has allowed us to pay our cook a little more. It has allowed us to give our staff a little bit more. It has helped in not only allowing us to serve quality meals, but also has allowed us to be able to take that money that we were normally putting in food and put it into salaries and some of it into our kitchen to get better quality equipment. It has helped us across the board, both the quality meals and a variety of meals, but also to be able to transfer funding and roll it over to staff. There is a difference in their income because of it and there is a difference in our supplies and materials in the kitchen as well as the classroom. We would serve out of paper plates. We actually got real plates, cups, silverware, serving bowls and spoons with measurements. A different quality has flourished throughout the program. It’s not just in the kitchen. The food program affects your whole program,” said Rose.
The kinds of foods they serve have also flourished. Tamecia said, “It broadens the horizons of so many different things you can make the kids. I’ve learned so many different meals you can put together. All of the different vegetables and fruits that are out there that the children can try that they might not have had that experience before. So for me it’s almost a creative experience. We can really sit and think and plan the meals a month in advance. To me it makes the meals more meaningful. A lot of thought went into it.” Rose added, “And we haven’t even served raviolis once since we got on the program!”
Adding a children’s garden has helped bring fresh fruits and vegetables into their meals. “We have grapes for the first time and strawberries. We have corn, carrots, zucchini, sweet potatoes, water melon, greens, blueberries, and a peach tree with peaches on it. The kids are able to go out there and pick tomatoes and cucumbers and actually taste them and eat them. They made zucchini bread. They did experiments. It’s science for them how stuff grows. They’ve been seeing the leaves, but now there are actually grapes on there. They were amazed when they got to see the grapes.”
The quality and quantity of food and resources have changed but also their experience of food has changed. They now have the resources they need to implement family style dining in the classroom. “The children are able to sit together and have their teachers sitting with them showing them how families interact with each other and how meals can be a fun time for them to experience each other,” said Tamecia. “The kids feel more valued because of the meals we are serving, the love that goes into it, the teachers preparing it. They see that.” Rose added, “Family style dining was obsolete here before the food program, because we were so much on a budget that we didn’t want the staff to share the meal. Because we were stretching it as far as we could make it go. So this food was for the children. I feel terrible saying that, but it was the truth. But now the food is for the children and the staff as well. We want them to sit with the children and be able to enjoy a nutritious meal as well. When you know better, people, you do better!”