Vegetarian Kids Need Summer Child Care, Too

Until last summer, my vegetarianism has never really made me feel marginalized, even though we live in a community without vegetarian restaurants, and I do not know any other vegetarian families in town. I admit that I have even found stories about how persecuted other vegetarian parents felt to be a little maudlin at times. Sure, my relatives have handed sausage to my toddler (she fed it to the dog), teachers have tried to get her to make lunchmeat snowflakes, and I’ve faced pressures of various kinds. But I have never seen this as a big problem. I have always felt pretty free to live our lives by our values and have not worried too much about the way that other people eat or wish that we ate. Last summer, however, I encountered some real barriers, and I am feeling a lot more sympathetic to the concerns that I have heard fellow vegetarian parents express over the years.

My daughter has always been in child-care due to my need to earn our living, but combining vegetarianism and child-care had never been difficult for me until my child reached elementary school age. Was I ever surprised at what I discovered! What I have found is that almost all of the summer child-care providers for school-aged kids in our community use the USDA Food Program, a federal program that reimburses child-care providers for the cost of the meals that they provide to the children. I knew this; many other child-care settings use the program, too, and I am a social worker and consider myself fairly knowledgeable about these things. I did not, however, know it would cause my family problems.

Upon approaching potential child-care providers and mentioning that my daughter was vegetarian and would need a vegetarian lunch or for me to pack her lunch from home, I was told that I would need a note from a doctor for her to be allowed a “special diet.” I explained that being a vegetarian was not a medical condition so I would not be able to produce a note saying that it was. They said that only medical and religious exemptions were allowed. Could I get a note from my church? Well, my belief in vegetarianism certainly coincides with the simplicity testimony of the Religious Society of Friends but not all Quakers, by any means, express the simplicity testimony by becoming vegetarians as I have done. My clerk might have written me a note discussing that connection, but it seemed a shaky sort of religious ground to me. What we really needed was a philosophical exemption, and these are not allowed according to the federal regulations that govern the program.

Under the USDA Food Program, child-care providers can serve a vegetarian diet to all of their children; they just can’t serve a meat-diet to some and a different diet to others without a medical or religious exemption, because it is considered discrimination. I spoke to a state level administrator in the program and she confirmed that this is true. It was clear from our conversation that she was aware of the problem I would face and unhappy about it. She talked about the program being behind the times and the need for change. I felt sure that the child-care providers and I could come up with something workable, but this official knew better. She had obviously seen this unfold before.

I certainly did not feel that they were obligated to fix something different for my daughter, and I have always been willing to fix her food myself, but most of the summer programs were not open to the idea of my packing my own child’s lunch. They would not be reimbursed from the food program for my child if she did not eat their lunch, and it would interfere with their reports and their finances to a small extent. Most programs count on the meal reimbursements to help pay for their programs and figure the meal reimbursement into the equation. Just taking the meat out of their lunch and letting me provide them with a substitute for that part was also frowned upon. They worried that such shenanigans would get them in trouble. Also, it would mean more work for them. That sounds awful, but it must be understood that most child-care providers are underpaid for the cost of the service they provide, understaffed due to these funding issues and very heavily regulated. While I badly needed them to try to be more flexible, I also could understand their point of view, given the regulations of the Food Program.

This left me with a very big problem, indeed. We needed summer child-care and my daughter needed a healthy, vegetarian lunch every day, but I found the regulations made that nearly impossible. Thankfully, I eventually did find a program that was not hung up on their reimbursement numbers and was willing to let my daughter bring a lunch from home to circumvent the lack of a philosophical exemption from the menu…only one, though. This adventure has made me aware of the need for a little social action on this issue. We were very lucky to find a program that could afford to be flexible and not everyone in our situation will be so fortunate.

Most summer child-care programs for school-aged children are dependent on the reimbursements they receive and cannot afford to go without very many of them. The high expense of providing child-care is why programs like the USDA Food Program exist in the first place. Not being reimbursed for one child might not be a heavy burden to them, but they do have to think about the big picture. If lots of children started requesting “special diets” for which they would not receive reimbursement, the child-care providers might be in real financial trouble. Child-care providers receiving government subsidies also face real concerns about perceived discrimination issues … what constitutes a good reason to allow a child to eat a non-reimbursable lunch and what doesn’t? They are between a rock and a hard place, too, just as my family is, unless the USDA changes its reimbursement rules.

There is a need for the USDA Food Program to institute a philosophical exemption for menu changes in child-care settings so that vegetarian schoolchildren do not end up being excluded from summer child-care placements due to this snarl of regulations and reimbursement needs. A child should not have to violate her principles or go hungry because she needs child-care, but, unfortunately, that is how the system is currently arranged under the USDA Food Program. I believe that we can fix this. Please write to your Congressional Representative and Senator and encourage them to legislate that the program include a philosophical exemption in childcare settings so that vegetarian meals can be provided to vegetarian children. Such a change would allow child-care providers to be reimbursed for providing those meals without fear of repercussions. This is not, of course, the sort of issue that many members of Congress are going to embrace as a cause, but they should be willing to make a regulatory change that increases the convenience with which their own constituents interact with the Food Program if their own constituents ask them to do so. Please ask them. Vegetarian families like mine, who need summer child-care, will thank you.