Child care providers demand full pay from the state

imageAs of Thursday morning, Ruby Evans had only $18.65 in her bank account. She runs Evans Family Day Care in Compton, one of many centers contracted by the state of California to provide subsidized child care.

In December, she only received 20 percent of her paycheck and wasn’t paid for the months of July, August, September or November last year.

Evans joined about 50 other care providers and parents who haven’t received payment to protest the Center for Children and Family Services Thursday morning.

The agency is given money by the state to pay child care centers like Evans’ that serve low-income families in cities such as Compton, Lynwood and South Gate, where few people can afford private day care services.

“I had to pull out my retirement just to pay my utility bills,” says Evans, who is 63 years old. “I can’t pay my house, my gas, lights and water. I’m on the phone all day trying to get extensions and explain to them why I can’t pay.”

The agency has contracts with about 1,000 providers through South Los Angeles and the South Bay, and none were fully paid in November or December.

Evans received only $700 of the $3,700 she was due last month. A representative for the Service Employees International Union said all of the providers they have spoken to have either received 20 percent or zero percent of their paychecks and the agency hasn’t given them any explanation.

The group had signs demanding at least 80 percent of their pay and marched outside the agency’s headquarters in Carson for more than an hour, leaving notes of their grievances taped to the blacked-out locked doors of the head quarters.

imageNo one from the agency responded to the protest aside from a security officer who stepped out to take down the notes.

Vanise Valentine is the parent of a five-year-old and uses the subsidized child care while she works and attends school to become a teacher.

If her provider closes, the 29-year-old mother says she might have to cut back at work or school because she says she can’t afford private day care.

The agency would not comment on the issue, but fiscal problems aren’t new.

The Pasadena Star-News reported last fall that the agency’s Head Start program in Pasadena and Glendale was shut down after a state-run audit showed the agency had a $5.1 million deficit despite receiving a $12 million grant.

Since the audit, the agency has been put on a conditional contract with the state, says Jennifer Barraza of the Service Employee International Union, who has been trying to help the care providers get their paychecks.

She says one of the reasons the agency has been able to get away with cutting off their providers from any communication or payment is because there are no state regulations for child care.

In October, the California Legislature passed a bill that would allow child care workers to unionize but Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it — just like Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed similar bills in 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2004.

“We can not afford a broken child care system. The state cannot afford a broken child care system,” says Tonia McMillian, who runs Kiddie Depot in Bellflower and has rallied in Sacramento on behalf of child care workers.

“We want to have the chance to have some say-so in fixing the system,” McMillian says. “We need a voice or we are going to be forced to close our doors too.”

Watts market helping those stranded in “food desert”

imageCorine Recasner has visited the Watts Healthy Farmers Market nearly every week for more than four years. Some weeks she buys eggs and oranges, but other weeks she can be found selling homemade gumbo or berry jam.

For the African American woman in her sixties, the market is all about generating community and culture for her neighborhood. She talks shop with the vendors, educates young people about Black history and swears by the fresh produce, and handcrafted artisanship for sale.

“It really feels like family here,” Recasner said. “The vendors are very friendly, we can relate to them.”

The market also happens to be one of the few places near her home where Recasner can get fresh produce.

She lives in a “food desert,” an area with no access to fresh produce in stores.

According to a report issued in 2011 by the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 81,000 people in Los Angeles County don’t have access to fresh produce. Most of those people live in areas such as Compton, Watts, East Los Angeles and Inglewood, where traditional grocery stores are nowhere to be found.

“The reasons are really varied and diverse,” said Charles Fields, a regional program manager with California FreshWorks, a program funded by the California Endowment. FreshWorks is a nonprofit fund that encourages grocery chains to set up shop in inner city areas.

Fields said that grocery chains often don’t want to enter these areas for several reasons: a misconception that poor people don’t want to eat healthy food, the fact that big pieces of land are hard to find and the fear that there isn’t a profit to be had where household incomes are so low.

“A lot of that can be overcome,” Fields said. “They just don’t realize it and that’s why we are here to help them.”

The organization provides loans at low interest rates, provides assistance in obtaining permits and guides grocers as to how to make a profit in poor areas — all in an attempt to bring food to the people.

“Our long-term goal is ultimately to make the people healthier,” Fields said. “We’re hoping that if people have increased access to healthy foods that they will actually buy healthy foods and then we’ll see a lot of the health problems that are typical of these communities start to decline.”

In the mean time, farmers markets serve as a vital alternative, Fields said.

The Watts market is one of seven farmers markets put on by Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization hoping to create access to healthy food for inner city and poor communities.

The other markets are located in Atwater Village, Echo Park, Leimert Park Village, Central Los Angeles and two in Hollywood.

“In an area like South L.A., there are very few places where you can get really quality produce,” said Ashley Heistand, the Watts market manager. “There are a lot of liquor stores, fast food stores, corner stores that don’t always have the healthy products that people desire and want to feed their bodies and to make them and their families healthy.”

imageBut even when produce is brought to these areas, affordability can still stand in between the people and a healthy lifestyle.

“We take food stamps, and we also take WIC — not the just the yearly coupons that people get, but we take the monthly fruit and vegetable checks,” Heistand said. “We feel like that is really important for all farmers markets to take.”

On top of that, the market features a matching program — for every dollar of federal benefits a consumer has, the market will match them an additional dollar — in order to get people to use their benefits on healthy food at the market instead of at a fast food restaurant.

Additionally, community members can apply to be certified sellers and sell produce from their home gardens to make additional income. Recasner will begin selling pecans from a tree in her yard.

“They recognize that it is an economically deprived community and allow us to partake in the business,” she said.

But the main goal has been and always will be health, Heistand said.

“We try to provide health services for the community. So, we’ll do blood pressure and vaccines and have nutritional information and do cooking classes,” Heistand said. “We really do believe that a big part of the health and wellness component is in the education and the tools to really use the produce that you just purchased.”

Part of that effort involves having representatives from the health care industry at the market each week.

Maria Aguirre, a community outreach manager at Kaiser Permanente’s Watts Counseling and Learning Center, spends her days teaching Watts residents about nutrition and health benefits.

“In terms of health conditions, I think obesity continues to be an issue, diabetes and cholesterol. There is a lot of asthma,” Aguirre said. “And I think a farmers market really gets the message across that there are other ways to promote health.”

Brenda Vizcarra brings her three-year-old daughter Sophia Rodriguez to the market because she knows that the fruits and nuts she loves will be organic and free of chemicals and preservatives.

“It’s a blessing to have fruit that you know is okay and healthy,” Vizcarra said. “Especially for my daughter. She loves the oranges and the carrots … everything about it, it’s just a different taste. I just love it. It’s a blessing to have it here in Watts.”

This week the two shared homemade pupusas — thick tortillas stuffed with cheese — from a Salvadoran vendor.

Despite the health benefits, economic considerations and community atmosphere of the park, only 600 people come through each week — just slightly more than 1 percent of the Watts population.

The majority of the market’s patrons are senior citizens and mothers with young children, but it has recently started to see an influx of teenagers and young adults.

“It’s only increasing as people hear about the market, as people tell their friends and neighbors about some of the great things that the market has to offer people,” Heistand said. “We have slowly grown over the years so we hope that we will continue to see more people taking an active role in their health.”

Currently the market is trying to involve local churches and high schools with special events to bring more people to the park.

Recasner is confident that if she can get people there, they too will fall in love with the market.

“Once you try it,” she said. “You’re here to buy it.”

A Very Healthy Happy Halloween

Children from across South Los Angeles went “trick or treating” Friday night at the Los Angeles Expo Center. But at the end of the night, their bags weren’t full of candy — they were full of fresh fruits and vegetables.

The Brotherhood Crusade, along with several other retailers and service organizations, held the second annual “Very Healthy Happy Halloween” event Friday night. The event was candy-free and offered healthy alternatives for children and their families.

“We’re really encouraging our families to look at how can they have a better healthy lifestyle and showing them alternatives on how to do that,” said Charisse Bremond-Weaver, the president of the Brotherhood Crusade, which provides social services for underprivileged areas throughout Los Angeles County.

After filling their bags with plums, bananas, carrots and more, children were able to go through a haunted house, have their fortune read, play in a petting zoo or do arts and crafts.

Bremond-Weaver estimated that more than 1,000 people from around South Los Angeles attended the event.

“When you look at how underserved communities have a lack of fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, it is really this desert of not healthy eating,” Bremond-Weaver said. “We really want to educate our community on the difference between healthy and unhealthy eating.”

Parents said they were excited to get the fresh fruits and vegetables. In South LA, where fast food is more common than supermarkets, fresh produce can be difficult to come by. All produce was donated by Coast Produce.

“Usually kids eat only candy and junk food and this event is opening them up to a lot of healthy stuff that we can’t always get,” said Noemy Molina, who brought her 6-year-old son Phoenix Chavez.

Jefferson Castillo, who brought his two young sons to play the games, said his kids seem to be happier and calmer when they eat healthily.

imageChildhood obesity has steadily risen over the last 50 years in the United States. Los Angeles area doctors said that almost 50 percent of their patients are either overweight or obese.

The biggest culprit for the weight problem?

Children are eating too much processed food instead of eating natural and organic foods, according to Dr. Matthew Keefer from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

“Certainly most of us don’t have as much access to fresh fruits and vegetables as we probably should, but also we are eating too many things that come in a package that have extra calories added to it or extra chemicals added to it that are there to preserve it but that aren’t necessarily healthy,” Keefer said.

The best way for parents to encourage healthy eating is to set a good example – eating balanced meals and treating candy, junk food and sodas as treats and not part of a regular diet.

“When they are not under their parents’ control they are going to do what they’ve seen their parents do because they think that is what is adult-like,” Keefer said.

Though economic and time constraints can prevent parents form maintaining an ideal, Keefer said that finding a happy medium is critical for a child’s health.

“We just need to do all that we can to make sure there are safe places for these kids to play and an expectation that a regular part of your diet should be natural things that grow rather than hot Cheetos that are died with food coloring,” he said.