The first 2,000 days of life – from conception to age five – are the period when we experience the fastest and most extensive brain development that lays the foundation for the rest of life.
During this critical time, some children spend up to 10,000 hours in long-term childcare, says Karen Thorpe, head of the Queensland Brain Institute’s Child Development, Education and Care Group.
“Much of their nutrition depends on what they ingest in those centers, and the brain doesn’t function without food.”
That is the driving force behind an extensive research program led by Professor Thorpe and her colleague Bonnie Searle, examining the quality of food and nutrition in Australia’s early childhood education and care sector.
Their research shows that there are serious shortcomings in the amount and type of food provided within the sector, especially in deprived areas.
Impact of food insecurity and disadvantage
There are two sources of food for young children in child care centers. Some centers provide the food, others depend on the parents who provide it with the child.
In a study of more than 1,600 centers in Queensland, Professor Thorpe and her colleagues found that childcare centers in disadvantaged or remote communities were less likely to provide food.
“An alternative way of putting this,” said Professor Thorpe, “is that parents are required to bring food from home, and these are the families who are least able to provide food and many live in conditions of food insecurity .”
Lack of food was a major problem, according to a recently published study by Dr. Searle, who compared food quality, meal environment, and interactions in metropolitan child care centers that provided food with child care centers that did not.
“What concerned us most was that there was not enough food, although the quality of food was poor across the board and not in line with Australian Dietary Guidelines,” Dr Searle said.
‘And the situation became even worse when parents had to send food.
“In the centers where parents experienced the greatest disadvantage, the children arrived hungry and the educators asked the children not to eat their food in one sitting so that it would last all day.
“And we witnessed teachers feeding their own food to children.”
Childcare workers are poorly paid and often come from the same communities as the children. According to Professor Thorpe, they themselves can suffer from food insecurity.
‘The good the bad and the ugly’
The study also found that poor food supply affected toddlers’ and preschoolers’ behavior throughout the day.
“The quality of emotional interactions was lower and conflict increased throughout the day,” Dr Searle said.
Professor Thorpe said the emotional environment in early education and care was very important.
“It’s what predicts children’s outcomes, not just when they start school, but through their high school years.”
The findings are consistent with the experience of Tamika Hicks, a teacher and former center owner.
Ms Hicks, who has 23 years of experience in the industry, said she has seen the good, the bad and the ugly.
‘The bad thing is that children are just income earners, get poor food that is cheap, lots of carbohydrates, not much protein and lots of saturated fat.
“Then their behavior increases and they are labeled for different things.
“Then teachers get burned out because they end up having to deal with different behavior and it’s a vicious circle. That’s the ugly part.”
The United Workers’ Union (UWU), which represents workers in the early childhood education and care sector, received similar findings when they surveyed their members.
“We found that the system for providing meals to small children in day care centers is not really set up to ensure that children get all the nutrition they need,” said Helen Gibbons, UWU’s executive director of early childhood education.
“It’s really built around profit, what’s affordable for those services and what’s easy to make.”
A key problem, according to Professor Thorpe, is that the quality standards by which early childhood education and care are assessed do not directly relate to what and how much children eat, but focus more on hygiene in food preparation, the prevention of allergies, and nutrition education.
Additionally, she said, quality inspectors assessing a center can’t necessarily trust what they’re told.
“We go into centers and observe and sometimes we see menus that look very healthy, but that’s not what the children are eating.”
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recently published its report on the market for the provision of childcare services.
The Productivity Commission is also conducting research into childcare and has published a draft report.
But Professor Thorpe said neither report directly addressed issues surrounding food and nutrition.
So what are the solutions?
Professor Thorpe says there are two solutions that go together.
The first is to provide targeted food subsidies to centers in disadvantaged areas.
“Australia has a very good database that can identify what services are available. If we can’t do it for everyone, we can at least do it for the most disadvantaged,” she said.
The second solution, she suggested, was to ensure the national quality framework and standards against which these early childhood services are judged are “looking at the right things”.
A spokesperson for the Minister for Early Childhood Education, Anne Aly, said there are requirements under the National Quality Framework to ensure that the food provided by a service is nutritious and sufficient in quantity.
“Services that choose to provide food must have policies and procedures in place regarding nutrition and dietary requirements. This is monitored by regulatory authorities at state and territory level,” they said in a statement.
“The Government will consider the final recommendations of the Productivity Commission inquiry and the future of the early childhood learning system as we chart a course towards universal early childhood education and care.”
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