Heart of Food with Care: Rhanda Ferro Jackson
Summary: The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) must do more to meet the needs of child care providers and the children in their care. 24-hour care centers face unique challenges as current funding does not accurately reflect the costs of providing meals. Costs not reimbursed are disproportionately absorbed by care providers or passed along to families. Through this blog series, the 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 child care providers possess in caring for children and the challenges they face.
Our first story is with Rhanda Ferro Jackson.
Note: Audio clips from Rhanda’s Zoom interview are embedded throughout the blog post. Quotes from the interview are also included, and were lightly edited for ease of reading.
Meet Rhanda Ferro Jackson
It was a Saturday morning when Rhanda entered the Zoom call and met with our CACFP Roundtable Legislative Advocacy team.
“Hi, Rhanda! So nice to finally meet and see you. We’re so excited to talk with you today!”
“Thank you, anything I can do to help,” Rhanda said. “I really appreciate you all taking the time out. To even care enough, you know, for us. To share our stories and [to listen to] what we go through and the help that we need. So thank you all so much.”
Rhanda had a busy start to her day – just before her 9:00 AM interview, she was finishing her grocery shopping. But Rhanda is used to “busy” as the director of a 24-hour family child care center that supports foster children, their parents, and their grandparents. Despite the continuous work and busy schedule, we were amazed by the energy, positivity, and love she showed for her work throughout our conversation. “I try to squeeze a nap every now and then. Or at least one eye,” she joked. “You can’t close both eyes when the kids are out!”
Rhanda is the director of the Jackson Family Child Care and Foster Family Respite Care. Her passion and dedication to supporting foster children is rooted in her own experiences as a foster parent and supporting the children of her extended family members. She was inspired to get involved with respite care with the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), where she saw just how many aunts, uncles, grandparents, and great grandparents had taken children under their wings, caring for them as their own kids. She was touched by the heart that they showed, and that they “found a love and found a space to squeeze in a bed or cot, even a sofa for their family member.”
But the foster system is not easy for caregivers to navigate, let alone for the child going through the system. [Quote begins at 0:43 in the audio file.] “You know, when I would take the kids to the Children’s Court,” Rhanda recounted, ”I would see the grandparents sitting there and not know what to do with these children as far as entertainment and containing them until their name was called to go into the courtroom. I would see the Crayolas and the toys that they put out for the kids, but the kids weren’t interested in that. They needed something more educational, and stimulate them mentally to take their mind off of what was going to happen when they walked into the courtroom.”
To better understand the unique challenges foster children and their caregivers' experience, Rhanda joined a coalition where she was trained in trauma-informed care (TIC) (1). She also has 3 children living with disabilities (2) and has attended workshops to learn how to be attuned to their specific, individual needs. Still, she wanted to do more for the children.
Rhanda recognized the importance of providing both a nurturing and stimulating environment that supported the children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. This started her career in child care where her continued commitment to creating secure environments offers a sense of stability as well as activities that promote children’s learning.
Compassion, Empathy, and Resourcefulness
Running a 24-hour family child care center is challenging, but Rhanda creates a space so safe and fulfilling for the children that “they don’t want to leave.” Beyond just the time spent in a day, many of the children have stayed at the center for most of their lives.
While this sense of family provides motivation for Rhanda to continue her work as a child care provider through difficult times, it does not justify using her own living expenses. To provide for the children, Rhanda compliments the limited assistance from the food program with personal resourcefulness. The funding she receives does not cover all of the meals her child care provides, but she mentions farmers markets as a good source of cheaper, yet nutritious food. She appreciates the flexibility to get the exact amount of an item that she wants so that none of it goes to waste.
Rhanda’s resourcefulness stems from her passion and love for the children in her care. As someone who was a foster parent herself, Rhanda understands what grandparents must go through to find a bed for a family member even while struggling with their own health issues. Her heart goes out to the children unable to shake off their anticipation of what they may endure in the courtroom. Her compassion for these families continues to motivate her to serve on behalf of these families, and her ongoing commitment is evidence of the love she brings to her care.
Securing Formula and Multiple Meals a Day
Rhanda currently receives reimbursements from CACFP. However, this can only reimburse a total of three meals or snacks a day. Rhanda provides breakfast, lunch, two dinners, and multiple snacks daily to the children at her 24-hour family child care center. To ensure all children in her care receive the nutritious meals they need, Rhanda often pays out of pocket to cover these expenses.
Newborns are also enrolled at Rhanda’s center. Unfortunately, Rhanda is not able to receive funding for formula from the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. And while formula is a reimbursable meal under CACFP, it by no means covers the full expense of formula – especially in light of the current formula shortage. As a result, she provides multiple rounds of formula on a daily basis completely out of pocket. Rhanda has reached out to the families of the children in her care for support asking for donations, but times were challenging for everyone across the board.
Rhanda also cares for children living with disabilities. She explains the unique challenges she faces in providing their meals, including managing food sensitivity and individual preferences. The three children living with disabilities in her care often want “the same thing every time, the same way all the time.” Rhanda strives to meet their dietary needs and navigates them with grace, but also finds herself stretched thin juggling these accommodations with a limited budget.
There is an unjust expectation of caregivers to carry the cost of meals that are not covered through standard tuition and fees. Instead of being supported, caregivers' passion for childcare and the health of the children in their care is exploited. While it is true many care providers prioritize children and put them first, this is not a justification for the wage disparities that stem from gender and racial inequities (3) experienced by many in the child care workforce. Rhanda candidly spoke about the sacrifices that she and others made during these difficult moments.
Call to Action - “The system needs to be revised. It needs to be updated”
“It’s frustrating at times,” Rhanda says, “because it seems like not only are some of the kids being left behind, but some of the caregivers are being left behind also. As far as with assistance, as far as the help that’s out there for us as family members and as child care providers.”
Rhanda has devoted her life to ensuring the foster children in her care are not left behind. That they have a home to come to, a family to support them, and healthy meals on their table. But who is doing that for her and other child care providers?
(1) Trauma-informed care and how it is related to nutrition:
(2) Resources for supporting children with disabilities
(3) Resources for racial justice and equity in education