Feb 08, 2017Barton Chronicle
BARTON — Quality childcare and good food are just two of the things that babies and young children need to get off to a good start.
But given the current crisis in childcare in Vermont — not enough providers, low wages for childcare workers, and high costs to parents — it’s not surprising that a lot of preschools and child care providers have to stretch to offer quality food, said panelists at Friday’s Barton meeting of the Hunger Council of the Northeast Kingdom.
About 20 professionals from agencies and nonprofits around the area met at the Barton Memorial Building to brainstorm about the issues. There are a lot of problems, but there’s also reason for optimism, panelists concluded. Universal pre-kindergarten is now the law in Vermont. And in his recent budget address, Governor Phil Scott promised more funding to improve access to quality childcare. And it looks like the Farm-to-School program may soon be able to offer locally raised food to early childhood programs as well as to schools.
But there are still challenges. Statewide, about 70 percent of young children are likely to need childcare because their parents work.
In Orleans County, 93 percent of those children don’t have access to high quality state regulated programs. That earns this part of the state two red flags from the group Let’s Grow Kids, meaning “stalled at the start” in the race for more affordable childcare.
But it’s pretty much the same across the state, said Maroni Minter of Let’s Grow Kids. A high quality program offers trained caregivers, clean surroundings, enrichment and school-readiness activities, and a chance to play outdoors, he said.
It can cost a family with two working parents and two children over $19,000 a year for childcare, a blue ribbon commission appointed by Governor Peter Shumlin found. For middle-income families, that can be 40 percent of their take-home pay — more than they spend on rent and food. At the same time, even with certificates and degrees in childcare, full-time childcare workers make only about $24,850 a year, usually without benefits. That’s less than the living wage.
About 90 percent of a child’s brain develops by the age of five, Mr. Minter said.
“And brain development depends on good food,” said Colleen Moore de Ortiz, a public health nurse who moderated the meeting.
The state Health Department has an awareness campaign called “3-4-50.” The slogan means that three problems — smoking, lack of access to healthy food, and lack of exercise — contribute to the four diseases that are responsible for half of the deaths in Vermont. In the Kingdom, that number is pushing 60 percent of deaths, Ms. de Ortiz said.
And children’s health is affected by the same issues. Babies and toddlers don’t smoke, but they may live with secondhand smoke in the home. And they’re already learning habits of diet and exercise that will follow them all their lives.
“It’s hard to believe,” Ms. de Ortiz said, “but 34 percent of kids by the age of five are already facing challenges to leading a healthy, successful, non-diabetic life.”
People associate the word “malnourished” with pictures they’ve seen of emaciated children from developing countries, she said. But in this country, malnourished children are often obese. They’re getting plenty of calories, but the calories come from fats and inexpensive “white carbohydrates” — sugar, white bread, pasta, and the like — instead of from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.
Head Start, which offers preschool enrichment and school readiness programs for the lowest-income children, serves breakfast and lunch at its half-day programs and an additional afternoon snack at its full-day programs, said Linda Michniewicz, Head Start director at Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA).
Head Start gets federal funding, so the meals have to meet nutrition standards, she said. In some schools and Head Start programs, children have a chance to help prepare meals and eat them family style with help from Green Mountain Farm-to-School.
“It’s a way of getting them to try new foods,” Ms. Michniewicz said. “Parents will say my child will never eat that — what is it, anyway?”
There’s legislation in the State House that would make Farm-to-School funding available for other childcare programs, she said.
The blue ribbon commission on the state of childcare in Vermont found that every dollar spent on preschool childcare programs returns five to nine dollars to the economy over time.
“Preschools, not prisons,” one of the Barton panelists quipped.
And, indeed, studies cited in the report say that children who have had a chance to go to a high quality preschool program are many times less likely to be arrested for a serious crime later on.
But it goes beyond that. Children who have been in quality preschool programs do better in school, and are less likely to need expensive special education services. And they earn more and pay more taxes over a lifetime. And when nutrition programs are factored in, the return could be as high as seven to 14 dollars for every dollar spent, Mr. Minter said.
Healthy children learn better and miss fewer days of school. Later in life, they do better at work and have lower lifetime medical costs.
But newly elected Governor Scott’s proposal to put more money into supporting early childhood programs comes at the expense of public school funding. In his January budget proposal, Governor Scott called on schools to level fund their budgets for next year. The state money that saves would go to improve childcare in Vermont.
“We didn’t know we’d be facing this Sophie’s Choice at the legislative level,” Ms. de Ortiz said.
“We’re pleased that Governor Scott has taken the report seriously,” Mr. Minter said. “But the Governor taking the money from K through 12 education is not sitting well right now. No one intended that.”
“We don’t want to see this drive a wedge between preschool advocates and the schools. We all want what’s best for the children,” he said.
Mr. Minter sees childcare as not just an issue for children and families, but also an economic issue for the state.
“When parents can’t come to work because of childcare, it affects the workforce and becomes an economic issue,” he said.
And there are families where one parent decides to stay home with the children because it just doesn’t pay to work after subtracting the cost of childcare, Mr. Minter said. That decision can affect the stay-at-home parent’s income and career prospects for life. Others may have to turn down raises or promotions because the extra money would cause them to lose income-based childcare subsidies, leaving them with less money than before the promotion, Mr. Minter said.
Good childcare is essential to having a strong workforce, he said. And being able to assure young workers that they will be able to find quality childcare is essential to attracting the young families and workers to Vermont.