A meeting Thursday night marked the end of more than 60 days of stress and uncertainty for local child care providers, after funding for a healthy eating initiative was abruptly cut.
The people overseeing the care of Frederick’s youngest residents were forced to fully fund the previously subsidized healthy meals. They made up for the lost assistance from the Child and Adult Care Food Program by raising rates for parents or paying it out of their own pockets.
Lucy Baffoe, who runs a child care center for eight kids in Brunswick, said she asked parents to donate money to make up for the $700 a month she averaged in reimbursement checks. What the parents could not provide came out of her own pocket, Baffoe said.
Parents were upset, as was Baffoe, that the promise to help fund healthy meals was broken, she said.
“Imagine getting a [basically] free meal for their child, then it was gone,” Baffoe said.
The Frederick County Department of Social Services abruptly stopped funding the Child and Adult Care Food Program in December, providing two weeks’ notice to nearly 200 local child care providers that they would no longer receive the monthly reimbursement checks, which for some providers was nearly $1,000 a month.
DSS had been the local sponsor of the program for decades, acting as a pass-through for money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the Maryland State Department of Education program. The program reimburses child care centers, adult day care centers, family child care homes and after-school programs for providing nutritious food and teaching about healthful eating.
The Frederick Community Action Agency applied to be the local sponsor in January and was approved in February. The training conducted Thursday night at the Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ was the exact training providers completed in October but was necessary to restart the program in Frederick with FCAA as the sponsor. Sarah McAleavy, supervisor of food and shelter services, led the training session and will supervise the program.
City employees with FCAA will approve the menus of child care providers and complete inspections of the child care centers. The Community Action Agency will hire a full-time case manager and a part-time staff member to administer the program. Those positions have not yet been filled, but several city staff will work part time to ensure the program begins on March 1, said Mike Spurrier, FCAA executive director.
A week ago, city aldermen approved an ordinance for more than $537,000 in the FCAA budget to support the food program. The city acts as the pass-through for the state-funded grant money.
Vanessa Athey, who runs a home day care center for six children in Woodsboro, said she is relieved to have a new sponsor in the FCAA. A number of parents were longtime customers and she did not want to break their trust by suddenly raising rates, she said. The loss of the program put her in a tough spot.
“It’s not fair to them. It’s not their fault,” Athey said.
The Community Action Agency has a history of working with the USDA, starting in 1994, when the FCAA began its Summer Food Service Program. The program provides free lunches in the summer months to children 18 years old and younger.
Spurrier said he is looking to improve the local administration of the food program, such as introducing an electronic system for providers to submit their meal plans for approval.
The question of whether local providers will receive back pay for the two months they went without reimbursement checks remains unanswered.
Susan Custer, owner of The Child Care Cottage, has filed a congressional inquiry through Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s office to the USDA requesting back pay for the two months Frederick County was without a local sponsor.
Providers had to sign a “permanent agreement” with MSDE and the sponsoring organization, at that time the Frederick County Department of Social Services, by the end of September to participate in CACFP for the upcoming year. The contract detailing how providers would be reimbursed was supposed to run until Sept. 30, 2019, Custer said.
Getting an answer about the inquiry has been frustrating, Custer said. Government offices are directing her to other government offices for answers.
“Everybody is pointing fingers, and nobody wants to do anything,” Custer said. “And Frederick County kids are standing here and not getting any money when it was promised to them.”
USDA officials confirmed that the inquiry had been filed and said the organization is working with MSDE on a final decision.
Bill Reinhard, an MSDE spokesman, confirmed the discussion regarding back pay but declined to provide further information or a timeline of when providers should expect a decision.
Spurrier said he has budgeted his program to provide back pay for providers if the state approves it.