Haines’ sole daycare loses its food assistance program

a food tray
A tray of food at the Kids R Fun daycare center in Haines. (Abbey Collins/KHNS)

Haines’ only licensed daycare provider is losing assistance from a federal food program.

The inspections necessary to qualify for the program will not be offered virtually anymore, and the organization that performs the inspections says traveling to Haines does not fit into its budget.

It’s a huge hit for Kim Larson, who has provided child care services in Haines for more than 25 years. All this time she has received assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food program. This allows her to provide free meals to the children in her care.

“I serve nutritional meals, I have to report daily what I serve, and those meals are covered by the federal food grant that the state of Alaska gets,” Larson said.

According to a representative with the state education department, in one month of this year, over 170 daycare home providers filed for reimbursements for meals, serving on average 1,200 children in a day.

But this assistance for Larson and her Kids R Fun daycare is about to end. To qualify for the program, her home has to undergo three reviews per year.

“They do unannounced visits, and they come and make sure I’m serving the right food,” Larson said. “For lunch you have to have a meat, you have to have vegetable, a fruit, a bread and milk. You have to serve the milk, and the right type of milk for the infants and the older kids, and the serving amounts, I mean it’s a lot of paperwork.”

But Larson said the hassle is worth it. She gets $10,000 to $12,000 from the program every year.

The program’s required reviews reviews are performed by nonprofits who act as sponsors, and do much administrative work. Their staff travel to daycare providers around the state. The cost and time commitment for sponsors is high, and many nonprofits have quit. There is currently only one organization in the state of Alaska that provides sponsorship: the Alaska Family Child Care Association, based in Anchorage. 

It is expensive to send staff to a town to do a single inspection, so the association has a policy of not traveling to towns that have only one licensed daycare provider. Haines used to have two, but one closed down a few years ago. Fortunately for Larson, during the pandemic, the federal government issued waivers allowing for virtual reviews.

“It seemed to work great, (but) it was still a surprise,” she said. “I never knew when they were going to call, and I had to answer the phone, because they know what time I serve my meals, I showed them the type of milk, I showed them the meals I was serving.” 

But now the USDA is going back to mandating in-person reviews. Last month, Larson received a letter from the Alaska Family Child Care Association. One sentence stood out, she said: “Due to budgetary concerns, the cost of sponsoring homes in Haines is not feasible currently.”

Larson said without the assistance, she will have to increase her rates.

“I think it’s about $175 more a month per child,” she said. “With the way child care is going right now, it just doesn’t seem right that the state and the federal government can’t come to a way to help the people in the rural areas.”

Gavin Northey works at the state education department, which administers the assistance program at the state level. He said he has taken steps to try to make sponsorship more affordable.

“I have submitted to the USDA, requesting a waiver so that only one visit be required in person, and so two visits could be performed as unannounced virtual visits,” Northey said.

Northey said even if the waiver is issued, there is no guarantee a sponsor will step up. He said the reviews are necessary to discourage fraud, and that a broader problem is fewer daycare providers are getting licensed and opting into the program. He said if more providers participated, the food assistance program could reach farther into rural areas.

“Our goal is to serve as many children across the state of Alaska as possible,” he said. “So certainly we encourage, if there is daycare homes out there that aren’t licensed, to get a license and to consider participation, so that it will make it possible for a sponsoring organization to take on the programs in Haines, or other locations in Alaska.”

Editor’s note: Reporter Alain d’Epremesnil‘s son attends the Kids R Fun daycare in Haines.

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