In parenthood there is no shortage of anxiety-inducers. As a mom of a nearly five-year-old, these come pretty much hourly. Yet, there’s been nothing in our parenting journey so far that compares to the angst associated with finding the right early childhood care. Whether you are going back to work full-time and researching daycare facilities, or stay home and are considering dipping your toes in the preschool world, the fear is palpable. Adding to the worries about safety, teacher ratios, educational enrichment—and, will my child be happy?—vegan and vegetarian parents worry about food. Will they accommodate our ethics? Will my child feel left out? Will my child be fed something that isn’t vegan?
It seems we all know someone who can retell a horror story or two, but with careful planning, flexibility, and a good dose of well-informed patience, it is possible for childcare facilities to meet the needs of vegan children and families. We are educators, too.
Two of the most challenging factors in this decision are cost and availability. While it would be wonderful if money weren’t an issue, for the vast majority of us, it is. Not every family can afford to send their children to highly-specialized childcare environments, which often tend to be more accommodating about food policies—some even catering to vegan and vegetarian families. There are now daycares and preschools popping up that offer strictly organic, vegan menus for all children. Rejoice! Of course, at least for now, that often comes with a hefty price tag (and highlights many social justice issues that are beyond the scope of this post). While large, urban locations and their surrounding areas have vastly more options for families, smaller cities and rural locations can be fairly limited in the number of care facilities within a reasonable commuting distance. Who wants to drive even a mile more than is absolutely necessary with a tired toddler in the back seat? Not me.
When your child is very young and hasn’t yet started to eat solids, the road is decidedly easier. You can provide breast milk or formula, and some centers offer soy-based formulas as well. As children begin solids, most facilities offer servings of infant cereal, fruits, and vegetables. No problems here! When they advance into the toddler rooms, that’s where things get interesting.
The first item to look for is whether or not the facility allows (or better yet, requires) families to provide a child’s snacks and meals. Others will state outright that they will accommodate alternative diets. Some families may consider commuting farther for this flexibility, or paying a surcharge for substitutions like veggie burgers or tofu.
With the increased sensitivity to children with severe allergies, some daycares and preschools will not allow external food. If the facility you are interested in does not welcome parents to provide snacks and meals, here are a few tips to make sure your needs are heard, and met:
• Be polite! You don’t want to start off a relationship on the wrong foot, and you’ll get farther, faster if you can remain calm and appear willing to work with the daycare or preschool.
• I’ve often heard it suggested, but think twice before playing a false allergy card. You want to build a strong connection with your daycare or preschool, and that will be impossible if you begin the relationship with a lie. Plus, it advances the entire vegan community each and every time you proudly assert your veganism with a smile and no apologies.
• Request that the kitchen staff walks you through all menu items offered, highlight those that are inappropriate to offer your child, and suggest ideas for menu modifications.
• Provide documentation that specifically outlines your requests—provide a copy for your file, the classroom, and one that can be hung in the kitchen, etc. Use clear, concise language that is not subject to misinterpretation. Spell out likely hidden ingredients such as broths and honey.
• Ask for the policy handbook. They are legally required to have one, and it may provide more insight and information for you to use in your arsenal.
• If you are being continually met with resistance and inflexibility in response to your family’s needs, you may come to the conclusion that this is not the right fit for your family. Don’t be afraid to listen to your instincts—more than anything, you want to trust the people you leave your child with, and if you have a suspicion that you are not being heard or respected, it’s time to move on with your search.
• As your child gets older, empower them by teaching self-advocacy. Even very young children can learn to ask whether a particular item is vegan, and that will help alleviate some anxiety.
It’s safer for children with allergies, and logistically easier to serve all children the same food, but whether or not the facility participates in the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) can be factor as well. If you are considering sending your child to a facility that participates in this program, you may face an uphill, but not insurmountable, battle in providing healthy, vegan food for your child. In January 2015, the USDA released proposed new CACFP rules, which include the addition of tofu as a meat substitute. There is even a new Farm to Preschool initiative through CACFP that focuses on serving locally grown, healthy foods to young children, and there are grants available to help facilities plan and implement these activities. It might be worth a conversation with your daycare or preschool to see if this is on their radar. While CACFP is a federally funded program, it is administered on state level, often by the department of education. The Food and Nutrition website is a good place to start to learn more.
It is important to make sure you do your research, know your rights, and get your facility’s policies in writing. Learn more about CACFP and your legal rights in Generation Veggie’s Vegan-at-Law advice column.
What was your experience like finding early childhood care and preschool options? Share in the comments below!