Heart of Food with Care: Laura Diaz
The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) is not doing enough to meet the needs of child care providers and the children in their care. Current policies only provide reimbursement for 3 meals each day and do not meet the nutritional needs of our youngest children. Child care providers must also navigate rising food prices and disproportionately absorb the costs not covered by the reimbursement program. With Your Stories: Heart of Food with Care, CACFP Roundtable aims to share stories that support policy changes that would be implemented through the Food with Care advocacy campaign and to put a voice to those who would be impacted by these policies. We hope you see the strength care providers possess in caring for children and the challenges they face.
This project is a series that previously featured Rhanda Ferro Jackson. Here, we would like to introduce you to Laura Diaz, a family child care provider, and the powerful message she has for policy-makers.
Note: Audio clips from Laura’s interview are included and supplemented by quotes that were lightly edited for ease of reading. Laura has shared pictures, which include some of the children in her care. We have covered their faces for privacy purposes.
Meet Laura Diaz
8:00 AM breakfast.
10:00 AM morning snack.
12:00 PM lunch.
2:30 PM afternoon snack.
4:30 PM dinner.
This is the meal schedule for Greyson, one of the children under Laura Diaz’s care. Greyson is in child care for ten hours a day. With five meals per day, Laura tackles the responsibility of ensuring that Greyson has food available to him almost every other hour.
As a family child care provider, Laura acknowledges the smaller ratio of children with whom she works, but she also carries almost all of the responsibility herself. Compared to center-based programs that often have separate teachers, directors, assistants, accountants, cooks, etc., Laura wears all of these hats and more in order to address the needs of the children in her care. She’s licensed to take care of 14 children, and her family child care home is currently at that max capacity. Still, Laura skillfully specializes her care to meet each child’s needs. Greyson’s individualized meal schedule is just one example of this.
Laura took some time out of her busy schedule to speak with us in a Zoom interview. Her story sheds light on the challenges as well as the joy that comes from serving meals and watching the children grow and succeed.
Success in Mealtimes and Creating Community
Laura shares about her experiences in nutritional planning and troubleshooting affordable options. She demonstrates her creativity and knowledge, explaining to us how she is rethinking protein options in response to the high cost of food. She describes how she opts for bean dips and peanut butter rather than costly meats, ensuring the children meet their protein intake recommendations and stay healthy while still keeping within a tight budget. Laura also emphasizes her resourcefulness in buying seasonal fruits and vegetables and her perspective on the importance of balanced diets to support children’s growth and development.
Laura smiles as she thinks about how her meals and cooking have impacted the children in her care. The satisfaction and happiness the children show as they enjoy Laura’s meals provides motivation for her work as a child care provider.
Laura shares a unique story about Jada, a child who has stayed in her child care for thirteen years now. Laura demonstrates her passion for supporting the whole child – from their health and safety to ensuring they feel supported, engaged, and challenged. She does so by building strong relationships with everyone at her home child care and practicing "continuity of care," where children and caregivers remain together for long periods of time and develop close relationships of trust and support.
Graduation is another success that Laura celebrates! She shares with us stories about a recent preschool graduation where the children wore cap and gowns, sang songs, and danced. She excitedly shows us this photo, which features Laura with four of the children in her care – Greyson is also in this photo, and stands on the far left!
Inflation & COVID-19 Challenges
Laura emphasizes that children do not eat just three meals a day, like adults do. The guidance from health authorities, such the CDC, also recommend that children eat more frequently than adults, approximately every 2-3 hours. Furthermore, it is not uncommon that the only meals the children eat in a day are received while they are in Laura’s care. Greyson’s eating schedule is typical and shows that Laura serves meals and snacks at least five times a day. She also speaks about supporting a parent who works two jobs. She explains, “I have a parent who picks up her children from here, then goes to the second job and takes the children with her. So whatever they eat [at my home], that’s pretty much all they’re going to eat.”
In addition to providing more than 3 meals, Laura is navigating rising costs for grocery items. She recalls taking pictures of food prices because of the sticker shock and the harmful impact of inflation on purchasing basic needs for the children in her care. $4.99 for a gallon of low-fat milk. $4.19 sale price for a loaf of whole grain bread. $6.99 for a carton of 18 eggs. $17 for three pounds of chicken breast. Laura has to purchase a lot of these items to have enough for all 14 children, and the costs pile up quickly with the inflated prices. As a family child care provider, she faces a unique challenge of feeding the children and her own family, which often results in needing to pay extra and out of pocket for healthy options:
In just one trip to the grocery store, Laura has to navigate health food options, bulk purchases to provide for 14 children and her family, all while battling the rising costs for food and basic groceries.
When Laura contemplates the inter-related challenges of providing high quality care and making an adequate living from her small business, she says it’s “not about the money.” That’s admiral and something we hear from child care providers and early childhood educators every day. However, it’s important to note that this passion for children over money is easily and often exploited by policy-makers and leaders. The child care system is severely underfunded and budgets, like Laura’s, are getting squeezed tighter and tighter. This forces the people who care for our youngest children to do so with fewer resources than ever before and this is bad for kids, families, and child care providers.
Balancing tight budgets and high quality care was extra difficult for Laura during the pandemic when stores limited the number of items each family could purchase. She waited in line for two hours at Costco – “sometimes in the cold, sometimes in the rain, sometimes in the excessive heat”– just to get a few cartons of milk, rice, bread, and water. The state granted educators “essential worker” status, allowing them to enter stores first and purchase more items. Regardless, even as a licensed family child care provider, Laura was turned away by supervisors and pushed back to the end of the line. After the incident at Costco, Laura was left wondering whether people understood the sacrifices she and other educators make for young children:
The challenges Laura endures is not just about the ability to pay for healthy meals throughout the day. And her story at Costco was not just a result of a one-time supply shortage during a pandemic. Her experience sheds light on the long-standing devaluation of the contribution, sacrifices, and love that educators have to care and support children. At its core, the challenges that Laura emphasizes are about whether she and other educators are seen, heard, and recognized for the devotion and care they readily give to our youngest children.
Call to Action: “These are real children with real hunger”
When Laura’s brother, who works at her child care as a teacher, contracted COVID early in the pandemic, she was not able to provide her insurance to help cover the $167,000 bill her family was left with. No insurance, no benefits, no time for a single day of vacation. While preparing for her interview, Laura reflects on what she does for a living and how that may compare to legislators. She asks, “[Do] they get a regular paycheck? Were they on salary? [...] if there's ever a day that they don't go to work? [...] Do they get medical benefits? Do they get retirement?”
She realizes the sharp difference between the benefits offered to legislators and to child care providers like herself. It’s on top of these financial disparities that Laura and other child care providers continue to supplement their funds so that the children in their care can eat:
For Laura, feeding children isn’t just about putting food in their stomachs—meal time is an important part of the children’s overall development. There are other aspects of development that she also focuses her attention on: weaning children off of bottles, helping them develop their fine motor skills, but making sure the children get all of the nutrients they need is Laura’s primary concern.