At a Thursday night meeting, the city of Dundas’s Planning Commission approved a Conditional Use Permit that could help to address the region’s significant child care shortage.
A Northfield native, Tawna Schneider has provided in-home daycare in Dundas for the last decade. While demand for the day-care has always been high, under current licensing, she’s only allowed to care for up to 12 children.
Schneider has long dreamed of setting up her own child care center. She and her husband Charles took a big step toward that goal last month when they closed on a triangle shaped property at 208 County Road 1 East.
Just one building currently sits on the property. Built in 1981 as an office and used more recently as a thrift store, the Schneiders plan to remodel the building, dividing it up into three classrooms and an office space with the goal of accommodating up to 40 children. In addition to potentially reducing the local child care shortage, Tawna Schneider touted her plan to open up “Little Village ELC” as a potential job creator. She said that once it’s complete, she plans to hiring several staff members.
The CUP is required because the building is in an area zoned for light industrial uses. As noted by City Planner Nate Sparks, industrial uses could mean that heavy truck traffic, smoke, loud noise and other disturbances would be near the center.
Across the street from the daycare center sits residential housing. A neighboring homeowner contacted the commission and urged them to deny the permit, raising concerns that the center could be incompatible with the neighborhood.
Nevertheless, the commission followed the recommendation of city staff and urged the council to approve the project, on the condition that a comprehensive parking and fencing plan be presented to the City Council, as well as plans for clear signage.
Schneider said that although there’s plenty of work to be done before Little Village will be ready to open, she’s excited to be able to get to work. She said that demand remains strong for child care, and especially infant care.
“I am constantly getting calls from people who are looking for child care, especially for infant care,” she said. “We’re very excited for this opportunity, excited to get our name more out in the community.”
Schneider said that when COVID-19 hit, child care providers like her took a major hit. However, the blow was softened notably due to the needs of the large number of “essential” workers, especially in the health care and law enforcement sectors.
Even so, the sheer demand for child care ensured that even during such an unusual time, needs remain unmet. According to a July 2019 report from First Children’s Finance, more than 1,000 child care spots in Rice County are unfilled.
According to the report’s numbers, which are broken down by zip code, the Faribault area has the largest number of unfilled slots at 352, with Northfield just behind at 349. Lonsdale has 125 unfilled slots, Webster 73, and Dundas is fifth in the county with 60.
Scott McMahon, a lobbyist with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said that post-COVID numbers haven’t yet been released. Nonetheless, McMahon expressed confidence that the shortage is likely even greater now.
According to McMahon, many child care workers are now paid so little that they could get a higher wage working at a gas station. In addition, he cited regulatory and licensing barriers as an issue, particularly for smaller providers.
“We know that there isn’t enough money in the system, that regulations are an issue and licensing is a problem,” he said. “All of the things are worth looking at.”
Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation President Tim Penny said that given those challenges, the industry has been particularly poorly equipped to cope with the unique challenges it has faced from COVID-19. With many workers unable to go to work, and older children able to take care of younger children, enrollment has been down. child care providers have also incurred extra expenses to keep kids safe, whether it’s by investing heavily in cleaning supplies or reducing capacity.
As a result, an already troubled industry is now sitting at the brink of collapse. While Gov. Tim Walz announced last week that $56 million in grants would be made available to providers, the state is facing a budget deficit in the fall, limiting its ability to help.
Over the last decade, child care needs have grown while many providers have gotten out of the business, leaving more than 40,000 children needing care across the state. Even before COVID, Penny said that profit margins for many providers were incredibly slim.
“It’s possible that a lot of child care providers have left the business because the financial stress of late has been too much for them to absorb,” he said. “Just anecdotally, I know that a number of providers have closed their doors.”
Penny said that greater Minnesota communities are most at risk because in most areas, in-home day care owners with little financial cushion are the primary providers. In the Twin Cities Metro, child care centers are much more common.
In recent years, legislators have talked about relaxing regulations as one way to help providers stay afloat. Penny said that while that’s a good start, child care subsidies for low-income families also need a boost.
In smaller communities most at risk of losing providers, Penny said that other, more creative solutions will need to be found. He noted that some communities have tried to address the problem by converting community centers into space for in-home day care providers.
Without major changes, Penny said that even as the need continues to grow, the system isn’t likely to become any less financially painful for many providers
“In many respects an affair of the heart,” he said. “The child care business is not producing much in the way of a profit margin.”
A hunger surge is expected to hit Minnesota to an extent that hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression, according to a recent study by McKinsey & Co for Second Harvest Heartland.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, one in 11 Minnesotans struggled to afford food. By August, according to the data, hunger is expected to impact one in eight in the state.
The hunger surge will affect communities differently throughout the state, and locally, food shelves have already adjusted their programs, seen a change in clientele and received various donations and grants amid the pandemic. But consistent funding and volunteers remain their biggest needs.
On July 8, Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan announced $12 million in funding will be delegated to support approximately 300 food shelves in the state through all seven Minnesota food banks. The funding is made possible by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Anika Rychner, Northfield Community Action Center program director, expects to use any dollars that “trickle down” from Walz’s effort to meet the need of the anticipated hunger surge in August and September. The CAC has already received grant funding from The Food Group to use between now and the end of August.
“The only funding we have received from Channel One was through Hunger Solutions,” said Tami Heimer, executive director of Lonsdale Area Food Shelf. “They do yearly grants to the food shelves, and this year the spring-summer grants came a little earlier than usual, and it was a little bit larger than in the past because of additional funding they had received.”
LAFS also received private donations through individuals and businesses as well as funding through the Minnesota Valley Electric Co-op Operation Round Up Program, said Heimer. A group of businesses issued a grant specifically for personal care items like deodorant, diapers and toothbrushes. Through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, LAFS received from Channel One items in the dairy, protein and produce categories at no cost to the food shelf.
“We’re extremely grateful for our community and the support they have given us in the past and the support they continue to give the food shelf so we can continue to serve those in our Lonsdale community,” Heimer said.
Larry Muehlenbein, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent dePaul Food Shelf in Faribault, said he’s happy with grant funding the shelf has received so far but admitted, “We could always use more.”
During the pandemic, Muehlenbein noted an increase in clients by about 50%. The shelf has extended its hours to once a week — Fridays from 1 to 3 p.m. or 6 to 8 p.m. the fourth Thursday of the month — to accommodate more clients.
Following the closure of the Faribault Food Shelf last month, he said it’s too soon to tell if St. Vincent dePaul has seen an influx of clients cross over. Like other food shelves, St. Vincent dePaul has implemented a drive-up format.
“Client contact is not as personal as it used to be,” said Muehlenbein. “We are revamping our entire operation here with a target date of Oct. 1 to get inside and do our food distribution back inside so we can have a bit more contact but still maintain social distancing and other requirements.”
With many of its volunteers retired, St. Vincent dePaul’s turnover rate has increased during the pandemic as seniors want to avoid the risk of getting sick. Since the food shelf has no paid workers, and operates solely on donations and grants, Muehlenbein said, “Right now, if this continues, we will be low on funds and low on volunteers.”
Heimer said LAFS divided volunteers into two teams of about six individuals to rotate shifts every other week, allowing time for quarantine and breaks. Like St. Vincent de Paul, LAFS implements a curbside pickup model.
CAC is also in need of more volunteers to package boxes, complete home deliveries and carry boxes to clients’ vehicles. Clients receive prepackaged meals in a drive-up format and will soon have the option of selecting their meal options rather than receiving products they did not request.
During these trying times, CAC has extended its assistance to Faribault and opened its doors to all of Rice County. Throughout the pandemic, Rychner said grants from Hunger Solutions have allowed CAC to distribute over 10,000 pounds of food between The Key Youth Center and Growing Up Healthy‘s distribution partnership with area schools.
Hiawathaland Transit has partnered with CAC for food deliveries at various locations, like senior living facilities, and Rychner said the need for this service has tripled during the pandemic. CAC has also seen a 64% increase in Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program screenings in the past three months, and clients have requested information on electronic benefits transfer (EBT), as well as food deliveries through Amazon and Wal-Mart.
“We’re seeing the needs pop up in different ways than our model has seen in the past, but I think that’s reflective of the times we’re in,” said Rychner. “We’re trying to be flexible to meet those needs. I think that is really important.”
Rychner said the end of Minnesota’s eviction moratorium also weighs heavily on clients right now.
“Especially if they haven’t been able to keep up on rent, there may be more people facing eviction with the end of unemployment stimulus coming up at the end of this month,” Rychner said. “Even though they may be going back to work, it may be to less of a degree, so people really are stretched and their budgets are stretched.”
In May alone, Heimer said LAFS saw more clients needing emergency financial assistance in than all of 2019. She expects that number to grow after the eviction moratorium is lifted.
But even with increased needs during the pandemic, and even after Channel One stopped its distribution to Food From the Heart, a former mobile food shelf in Lonsdale, Heimer said the number of clients at LAFS hasn’t fluctuated much.
“From what I’m hearing that’s quite common for smaller food shelves,” Heimer said. “You get to the Twin Cities and metro area, and those numbers are much different than a rural setting.”