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More than twenty years after Barbara Ehrenreich uncovered deep economic inequities and indignities endured by the working poor, America’s child care workers are sacrificing their own well-being to support the U.S. economy.

In a recent survey conducted by researchers with the RAPID-EC Project at Stanford University, 29 percent of child care workers reported not being able to consistently afford nutritious food in 2021, up from 23 percent prior to the pandemic. Among family, friend and neighbor providers — the license-exempt caregivers who look after more than 5.8 million 0-5-year-olds in their own homes — 34 percent reported experiencing food insecurity in the past six months.

The average child care provider takes home just $13.22 per hour,  an unlivable wage that is not keeping pace with the 13 percent rise in the cost of groceries in 2022. Child care workers often feed the children in their care two or three meals a day plus snacks, a cost that comes out of their own pockets and sometimes off their own dinner plates.

Paying for the rising cost of food also means child care providers sometimes forgo other expenses — health care, utilities, etc. — that keep them and their own children healthy.

Home Grown, an organization focused on improving the access to and quality of home-based child care, recently convened caregivers from across the country to discuss the issue of food insecurity among child care providers. One participant noted that more and more children are coming to her program hungry.

“Last year about half of the children [12 kids, from age 1 to 10] in my program arrived without having had breakfast,” she said. “Now every single child arrives needing breakfast.”

Paying for the rising cost of food also means child care providers sometimes forgo other expenses — health care, utilities, etc. — that keep them and their own children healthy.

Yet the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which reimburses child care providers for meals they feed to the children in their care, doesn’t come close to compensating providers for the escalating cost of nutritious food. CACFP reimburses eligible providers for only two meals and one snack per day, for a total reimbursement of approximately $6 per day, per child in home-based family child care programs.

Most egregious, since the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, CACFP has used a two-tier system that reimburses some eligible home-based child care providers at a lower rate than others. According to this system, providers in uniformly low-income neighborhoods or who have incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty rate are designated as Tier 1, while those in mixed-income neighborhoods or with slightly higher incomes are designated as Tier 2 and receive a much lower rate of reimbursement.

The reimbursement rates are so low for Tier 2 that, with the expenses of meeting the nutrition standards and the effort of the paperwork required, they discourage many eligible child care providers from participating at all. One provider told us she served over 300 meals and snacks in her program in October, and with the Tier 2 rate this would have been impossible to afford. Even at the Tier 1 rate, it is a challenge.

Related: What’s next for child care after Senate bailed on reforms

Home-based providers are dedicated professionals who understand, as one provider argued during the Home Grown convening, that “children need a nutrient-rich diet to help them process the world around them. Children who don’t get the nutrition they need may have behavior issues and cognitive delays.”

That’s why increasing payment rates for child nutrition and expanding access to the CACFP and other assistance programs so that all child care workers can use them would bolster the health of our children and their caretakers.

The pandemic waivers and the Keep Kids Fed Act were a good, but temporary, start. The waivers and act increased payment rates through June 2023 and paused the tiering system temporarily.

Congress must act quickly to renew the Child Nutrition Act and invest in CACFP by adding payment for an additional meal. Congress must also build on what they started with the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act.

Then, legislators must act on the rest of these reasonable recommendations, along with home-grown solutions from those who know best: The women who are taking care of our kids — and going hungry themselves in order to feed them.

Alexandra Patterson is the director of Policy and Strategy at Home Grown. Her work focuses on policy solutions that equitably distribute resources to home-based child care settings.

Mary Beth Salomone Testa is a consultant for Home Grown whose work focuses on advocacy and policy development around family child care.

This story about child care workers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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