Advancing Early Childhood Education

Feeding Injustice: How Colorado Fails our Youngest Kids by Denying Food Benefits

A hungry child is a hungry child. It doesn’t matter whether this child is being cared for by a licensed childcare center, a forest preschool, a tía, or a neighbor. All children deserve to have access to nourishing food. The State of Colorado has the ability to provide a pathway for all children to be part of Federal food programs – and they should act now.

In Colorado, thousands of young children under the age of five, often from low-income backgrounds and communities of color, are cared for in home-based settings by family members, family friends, and next door neighbors.  These Family, Friend, and Neighbor (FFN) providers are license-exempt caregivers that provide essential support to children and families, often in regions that lack enough formal child care options. 

Yet, despite their invaluable role, Colorado’s current regulatory landscape does not give FFN providers equal access to funding and resources. In particular, Colorado does not allow all FFN providers access to the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) federal food benefit, even though the State has the power and authority to do so. CACFP provides reimbursement to care providers for the purchase of healthy food for kids. For example, CACFP could reimburse a home care provider caring for four children approximately $600 a month, depending on how many meals and snacks they serve. The State denies the majority of FFNs from CACFP participation unless they are also participating in the child care subsidy program (the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program or CCCAP) for qualified families.

In no other PK-12 education or child care system do we link access to nutritious meals with eligibility for child care or educational subsidies. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is an entitlement program that allows low-income children in kindergarten through 12th grade (including some preschools) access to free or reduced price lunch. While schools are required to meet certain nutrition standards along with other safety, consumption, and reporting requirements, eligibility for additional educational subsidies do not play a role in determining a school’s eligibility to participate in the NSLP.

Nor do they factor into eligibility for the School Breakfast Program, Summer Food Service Program, After School Snack Program, Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, Special Milk Program for Children, CACFP Afterschool Meal Program, or Colorado’s own, Healthy School Meals for All program.

While there are efforts afoot to address these issues, the challenge persists. This is a travesty that can no longer be overlooked. It should not be so hard to get healthy food to Colorado’s youngest children.

Thankfully, local communities in some regions across the state are stepping up to fill a need when it comes to food access for children in the care of FFN providers. Although these efforts are exemplary and important, these communities simply cannot meet the need for all of the children in FFN care — estimated to be over half of children under five in Colorado. Below, we highlight a sample of how the Denver’s Healthy Food For Denver’s Kids grantees are working to find innovative and equitable solutions to feed children being cared for in FFN settings:

  • Southwest Food Coalition – Lifespan Local
    • The Southwest Food Coalition, led by Lifespan Local, addresses food insecurity in families with children from zero to five through several methods including providing healthy and culturally appropriate food directly to early care settings, including FFN providers, while also providing food benefits education and enrollment to providers.    
  • Tasty Food – City and County of Denver
    • The Office of Children’s Affairs (OCA) expanded the “Tasty Food” program where Denver youth eat free. Year-round, in approximately 50 locations across Denver, children ages zero to five in FFN care enjoy nutritious and culturally responsive breakfasts, lunches, snacks and suppers. OCA also trains and mentors other organizations to increase the number of CACFP and Summer Food Service Program sites and sponsors.
  • Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center – Colorado School of Public Health
    • The Culture of Wellness in Preschools (COWP) program provides hands-on, innovative nutrition education programming for 2,100 children and youth attending the four largest Denver Public Schools Early Childhood Education centers along with 85 FFN refugee providers. While COWP doesn’t specifically provide direct access to food, the program activities include: nutrition education lessons for children, parent wellness workshops, a nutrition education and physical activity texting program, and making health-promoting policy, system and environment changes. The FFN providers also receive a modified version of the COWP program where they participate in a six-part workshop series, complete with take-home nutrition education lessons. All FFN materials are culturally adapted and translated from English into Dari, Arabic, and Spanish.

These local models teach us that there is a growing demand for food access for young children – a demand that community organizations are stepping up to meet. However, these local efforts alone cannot meet the needs of the many children in FFN care across Colorado. It is unfair to burden our community organizations as the sole provider of food for young children in FFN care. The State of Colorado has a duty to step up and step in to help meet this demand, especially since there is federal CACFP money allocated for feeding Colorado’s young children.

Ensuring food security for all children in Colorado, especially those in FFN care, is a moral imperative. It is time for Colorado to be bold and prioritize the well-being of its children. By fixing access to CACFP for FFN providers, we can take a significant step towards addressing food insecurity among our youngest and most vulnerable residents.  The State of Colorado can – and should – work towards unlocking CACFP access and federal funding in our state to feed ALL young children, regardless of who their care provider is.

Co-Authored by Taber Ward and Miguel In Suk Lovato


Written By: Taber Ward

Taber Ward is a strategist and advocate for social justice. She is a believer — especially in human potential and...

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Written By: Miguel In Suk Lovato

Miguel In Suk Lovato believes in child/youth-centered educational opportunities that foster curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking. He recognizes that factors...

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