Tahlequah Daily Press

January 4, 2013

Daycare food quality a serious issue for state

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — A move to reduce childhood obesity has recently taken center stage, but equally important is ensuring children who attend early childhood or daycare centers receive enough – and the right kinds – of food to eat.

Jean Parker, owner of Miss Jean Parker’s Daycare, is a certified childcare worker. Her home-based care facility is rated two stars by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and receives federal funds through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Child Nutrition Program.

“We provide breakfast, a morning snack, lunch and an afternoon snack each day,” said Parker. “Two- and 3-year-olds need healthy snacks, and more than just one, because they don’t eat large quantities at any given time. Because we are in a low-income area, I am rated a Tier 1 recipient, as are most – if not all – the daycare operators in this area.”

According to the USDA website dedicated to child nutrition, Tier 1 day care homes are those in low-income areas, or those in which the provider’s household income is at or below 185 percent of the Federal income poverty guidelines. Sponsoring organizations may use elementary school free and reduced-price enrollment data or Census block group data to determine which areas are low-income.

Documentation provided by Parker shows Tier 1 status provides $1.27 per child per day for breakfast, $2.38 for lunch, and 71 cents per snack. The program is open to all children, regardless of income.

“I receive funding monthly,” said Parker. “And there’s lots of paperwork involved. I have to provide proof of each child’s enrollment and attendance, as well as proof they received the meals I prepared.”

Parker regularly attends training for food safety and preparation.

“I went to two training sessions in 2012,” she said. “They help us with any questions we might have, provide us with the most up-to-date guidelines and information, because they are very strict about what we feed the children.”

According to Parker, meals must include a protein, two servings of fruits or vegetables, one grain and milk as a beverage. The protein must also be labeled “CN” on the packaging, proving the item has been approved by the USDA for participating child nutrition programs.

“With [First Lady] Michelle Obama’s obesity reduction plan, we now serve either 2 percent or skim milk, instead of whole milk,” said Parker. “They say the program is working and childhood obesity is coming down.”

Parker said to remain in compliance with the program, she has to submit detailed menus every two weeks, outlining what the children will be having for breakfast, lunch and both snacks.

“I send mine in a month in advance,” said Parker. “We have an auditor who works through the Kibois Community Action Food Program, who visits the site every 60 days unannounced to check for compliance.”

According to Parker, the auditor reviews all the required documentation, including attendance records, enrollment records and menus.

“She also thoroughly checks the kitchen itself, including the thermometers in the refrigerator and freezer, along with inspecting the overall cleanliness of the kitchen,” said Parker. “She checks our food storage, too. There are a lot of rules, but they are there for a reason. She even makes sure the kids wash are washing their hands properly before and after meals.”

The Press recently received a report that a local daycare center was serving children “junk food” or unapproved snacks during the day. If true, Parker said, that business is taking a risk, because failure to comply with USDA regulations can have severe consequences, depending on the seriousness of the infraction.

“If things aren’t as they should be, a daycare can be completely cut off from the USDA program and could be prevented from re-applying for assistance for seven years,” said Parker. “For less severe problems, the auditor may recommend more frequent inspections.”

To make sure local auditors are performing up to standards, a second tier of compliance checks are also in place, said Parker.

“It’s kind of the auditor’s auditor,” said Parker. “They come in once a year and monitor documentation and visit daycare homes and centers to make sure the auditor’s records are being kept properly. There’s a really good system of checks and balances. Because it’s federal funding, it would be a federal crime to take the money and not use it appropriately.”

While she adheres to the guidelines and provides healthy foods, Parker also ensures none of her children goes hungry.

“If my kids ask for seconds, I give it to them,” said Parker. “As you can see, not a one of them has a weight or obesity problem. Little kids just burn calories up quickly.”

On a larger scale, both the Cherokee Nation Child Development Center and the CN Early Childhood Unit provide USDA-approved meals, as well meeting routine standards for routine inspections and audits. Both programs participate in the Child and Adult Care Food Program  through  the state of Oklahoma.

According to CN officials, children qualify based on family size and income. Both programs are reimbursed for meals served for all participating children, but directors at both programs say the CACFP doesn’t cover all their center costs for food, and use other resources to fill the gaps.

The CN Child Development Center is a three-star nationally accredited Early Childhood program that teaches up to 92 children, ages 6 weeks to 4 years, and provides a summer program for an additional 24 children, ages 5-11.

“On average, 62 percent of the center’s food costs is covered by CACFP,” said Deanna O’Laughlin, manager at CN Child Development Center. “The rest is paid through tuition and child care block grants.”

According to Verna Thompson, director of the CN Early Childhood Unit, the remainder of the costs of that food program is paid through program funds.

“We provide more than 5,000 breakfasts, 5,000 lunches, and 5,000 snacks per month,” said Thompson. “To participate in the CACFP, the programs make sure meal patterns and components are met daily, and that adequate portions are served at all times.”

At the Cherokee Nation, food production records are maintained and menus meet all required components, said Thompson.

“We ensure CACFP enrollment forms are kept on each child served, meal counts and attendance is maintained, and records are submitted by the 10th of each month,” said Thompson. “Food service staff are adequately trained through the state child nutrition program. Inspections are also met by Cherokee Nation Risk Management, Cherokee Nation Environmental Health and state officials.”