Governments’ daycare budgets didn’t account for inflation, and it’s affecting how kids are fed

Janice Delf at the Westend Day Care Center in Portage La Prairie, Man., on Jan. 25.Shannon VanRaes/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Janice Delf serves the 70 children at her Portage la Prairie, Man., child-care center snacks and lunches filled with fruits and vegetables, as recommended by the Canada Food Guide. For the children whose families are struggling financially, especially now with inflation, the food they get at daycare may be their only reliable, healthy meal all day.

Ms. Delf says she would never want to cancel the food program, but she is increasingly frustrated that government funding has so far failed to account for skyrocketing food costs.

“The other program in Portage doesn’t provide a meal program, and I do. We get the same amount of funding? Really? There’s no incentive to provide a meal program,” Ms. Delf said.

High food costs have become a struggle for many Canadians. They are especially difficult for child-care centers who have had their fees capped under the national Early Learning and Child Care agreement, the so-called $10-a-day deal. Unless government funding is adjusted to reflect inflation at the grocery store, some centers are considering canceling their food programs, or adding it as an extra cost, which advocates say is outside the spirit of the national deal.

“If we’ve got to start jettisoning expenses … do we start cutting back on our food program, or even eliminate it in its entirety over time?” said Cliff Dawson-North, who owns a child-care center in Calgary.

The centre’s three biggest expenses, in order, are staff wages, rent and food, Mr. Dawson-North said.

The food program at the center costs approximately $2,500 a month to run, an increase of nearly 30 per cent over the same time last year, Mr. Dawson-North said.

Grocery prices were up 11.4 per cent year over year in November, according to a Statistics Canada report released in December.

A lot of parents are stretching the dollar as far as they can go.

Ashley Collins, co-chief executive officer of Compass Early Learning and Care

There seems to be no break in sight. A report conducted by researchers at several Canadian universities released last month predicts that overall food prices will rise another 5 per cent to 7 per cent this year.

In Alberta, operators like Mr. Dawson-North are not allowed to increase their fees by more than 3 per cent under the current terms of the Early Learning and Child Care agreement.

Ashley Collins, co-chief executive officer of Compass Early Learning and Care, which operates 40 child-care programs across Ontario, estimates they have had to increase their food budget by up to 10 per cent.

Programs in rural communities have had the highest increases, Ms. Collins said.

Child-care fees are frozen under the national deal, and centers have been given a 2.75-per-cent increase in indexed funding. It’s not enough, Ms. Collins said.

“There’s so many multifaceted things like we need to do from an operational level – make sure that that food can continue, but also our staff, being able to make sure we’re still putting money into increasing wages,” she said.

Compass programs will continue to look for sales on food and adjust menus accordingly rather than cut food offerings or add them as an extra fee, Ms. Collins said.

“How unfortunate would it be that centers are feeling like they have to add that extra fee at a time when fees are supposed to be going down,” she said.

Charging parents an extra fee for food – effectively skirting the limitations on fee increases by listing it as a separate charge – would be “against the spirit of the $10-a-day plan,” said Marni Flaherty, interim CEO of the Canadian Child Care Federation. After all, the plan is intended to reduce fees for parents, not create new ones.

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One in six Canadian households, or 5.8 million people, including 1.4 million children, were food-insecure in 2021, according to a report from Proof, a research program that studies household food insecurity.

“A lot of parents are stretching the dollar as far as they can go,” Ms. Collins said. “We do follow the Canada Food Guide to make sure that they’re getting their fruits and their veggies in different things. So that at least families can rely on our food programs for things like that.”

Alison Merton, director of early years at Collingwood Neighborhood House, which looks after approximately 400 children in Vancouver, said the food provided “could be their only meal of the day.”

Collingwood could raise the fee for its food programs but wants to avoid adding to families’ costs, especially at a time when interest rates keep rising, Ms. Merton said.

“Parents need some consistency. They need to know that they don’t have to worry about putting food on the table for the kids,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to worry that the child-care program is not going to be able to do that either.”


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