Without explanation, Frederick County Department of Social Services abruptly ended its decades-long participation in a program to fund healthy meals for children in day care.
Nearly 200 local providers are left scrambling to pay for the previously funded food — forced to choose between taking on the cost themselves or breaking contracts with parents to raise service prices.
In a letter dated Dec. 17, local child care providers learned from the Frederick County Department of Social Services that, at the end of 2018, the agency would no longer sponsor the Child and Adult Care Food Program. Several providers described receiving the letter as they were beginning their Christmas vacations.
Ashley Earls averaged a $1,000 reimbursement check each month for the 10 children enrolled in her program in Walkersville. Her day care service is the main income to provide for her own four children, she said.
Earls said she cannot raise rates on her families to make up for lost funding.
“I can’t ask these families to do $30 a week [more]. That would skyrocket prices,” Earls said. “I don’t want my families to incur a higher expense because of something we cannot control.”
Instead of raising rates, Earls is making up for the lost money in other ways. After the last child leaves her program around 5 p.m., Earls now works a second job, averaging 20 hours a week. She has asked parents to donate the crafts and office supplies she used to be able to afford on her own.
“I shouldn’t have to work a second job because the county abruptly cut off funding for us,” Earls said.
Jeanette Jones said she will need to raise her rates. She has provided day care for 23 years and currently operates a center in Ballenger Creek. Jones estimated that she would need to increase prices by $20 a week per child to make up for the lost funding. Almost all of her parents are low-income, though, and she does not want to raise her rates.
The program’s monthly checks, averaging around $600, brought healthy food to the 10 children she cares for, Jones said.
“It has made me be able to buy the better food instead of the junk food and keep my prices lower because of it,” she said.
The Child and Adult Care Food Program is a Maryland State Department of Education program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 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, according to the program’s website. Providers are required to complete training and submit meal plans with local sponsors to receive the funding.
The Frederick County Department of Social Services had been the local sponsor for more than 20 years, approving meal plans, doing inspections and handling the reimbursement checks.
Susan Custer, who has owned and operated The Child Care Cottage for 18 years, said she was reimbursed about $580 a month for the two meals and snack she provides every day for the 18 children in her program. The reimbursement checks did not cover the full cost of the food each month, but helped pay for the nutritious meals that can otherwise be expensive, she said.
“Some of these children, these might be some of the only meals they get,” Custer said.
Custer and her other teachers will continue to provide the same food for the children but will pay for the meals themselves, she said.
Local child care providers have not been informed by DSS of any transition plan to a different local sponsor. Frederick is the only county in the state without a program sponsor, said Bill Reinhard, MSDE director of communications.
The news of the program’s end came without warning, providers said.
Terry Heffner, an in-home provider for eight children in Middletown, said a worker with DSS was in her home doing a food program inspection several days before the letter arrived. The worker completed the inspection and said nothing about the program ending, she said.
Heffner said her reimbursement checks averaged around $200 a month. Despite the now increased cost to her, Heffner said she will not break the contract she has with parents to make up for the lost reimbursements.
She does not think parents can afford an increase in the already high cost of child care, especially in the middle of a contract, she said.
The program subsidized meals for around 190 care providers in the area, distributing more than $800,000 in fiscal 2018, said Patty Morison, Child Care Choices director at the Mental Health Association of Frederick County, in an email.
The Department of Social Services confirmed in an email that it was ending its participation in the program. DSS did not respond to repeated requests by phone and email in the past week about why it was leaving the program.
Leslie Albritton, an in-home provider in Frederick, said she was disappointed by the lack of notice or explanation from the agency. Several providers said they felt as though a promise had been broken, while providers had to keep their promise to parents by continuing to provide nutritious food.
“I’m going to make sure my kids eat healthy, but now that’s going to cost me,” Albritton said.
The loss of the program will affect families, too, providers said. Beyond a higher price, children could receive less-nutritious meals.
Donna Austin, who runs an in-home service in Walkersville for nine children, said she had planned to replace a worn gate in her home. She may now need to use that money to pay for food since she cannot rely on the $750 reimbursement check she averaged each month, she said.
“When you have to come up with $1,000 or $800, depending on the check, you have to start cutting. Cutting on arts and crafts. Cutting on safety,” Austin said. “You think it’s just the food program, but that money that you don’t have to pay for food, you put it into gates, books, curriculums.”
Morison, whose Mental Health Association program supports local child care providers, said in an email that MHA is searching for a new sponsor for the food program.