The first 2,000 days of life – from conception to age five – is when we go through the most rapid and extensive brain development that lays the foundation for continued life.
During this critical time, some children spend up to 10,000 hours in long day care, said Karen Thorpe, who leads the Child Development, Education and Care Group at the Queensland Brain Institute.
“A lot of their nutrition depends on what they get in those centers, and brains don’t function without food.”
That is the drive behind an extensive research program led by Professor Thorpe and her colleague Bonnie Searle which investigates the quality of food and nutrition in the early childhood education and care sector in Australia.
Their research indicates that there are serious deficiencies in the amount and type of food provided within the sector, particularly in disadvantaged areas.
Impact of food insecurity and disadvantage
There are two sources of food for young children in childcare centres. Some centers provide the food and some rely on parents to send it in 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.
“Another way of putting this into effect,” said Professor Thorpe, “is the requirement for parents to bring food from home, and these are the families least able to provide food and many living in food insecurity.”
Lack of food was a major issue, according to a study recently published by Dr. Searle, which compared food quality, mealtime environment, and interactions in urban childcare centers that provided food versus those that did not.
“What worried us the most was that there was not enough food, although the quality of the food was low and it was not in line with the Australian dietary guidelines,” Dr Searle said.
“And the situation was worse when parents had to send in food.
“In the centers where the parents were experiencing the highest levels of disadvantage, the children were coming in hungry and the educators were asking the children not to eat all their food at the same time so it would last the day at all.
“And we saw educators bringing their own food to children.”
Childcare workers are poorly paid and often come from the same communities as the children so, according to Professor Thorpe, they themselves could be victims of food insecurity.
‘The good, the bad and the ugly’
The research also found that poor food supply had an impact on the behavior of young children and pre-school children during the day.
“The quality of emotional interactions was lower and conflict increased during the day,” Dr Searle said.
Professor Thorpe said that the emotional environment in early education and care was very important.
“It’s what predicts children’s outcomes, not just when they enter school, but through their middle school years.”
The results come with the experience of Tamika Hicks, educator and former owner of the center.
Ms Hicks, who has 23 years of experience in the sector, said she has seen the good, the bad and the ugly.
“The worst thing is when the children are just income earners, fed bad food at low cost, high carbs, not much protein, high saturated fat.
“Then their behavior escalates, then they get labeled for different things.
“Then educators are giving up because they’re dealing with different behaviors at the end of the day and it’s a vicious cycle. That’s the ugly thing.”
The United Workers Union (UWU), which represents workers in the education and early childhood care sector, found similar results when they surveyed their members.
“We found that the system for providing meals to young children in long 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 -young.
“It’s really based around profits, what’s affordable for those services and what’s easy to do.”
A main problem, according to Professor Thorpe, is that the quality standards under which early childhood education and care services are carried out do not directly assess what the children eat and how much they eat, but are more focused on hygiene in preparation food, allergy prevention, and nutrition education.
In addition, she said, quality inspectors who evaluate a center do not necessarily rely on what they are told.
“We go into centers and we look and sometimes we’ll 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 investigating childcare, and has published a draft report.
But Professor Thorpe said neither report directly addressed issues related to food and nutrition.
So what are the solutions?
Professor Thorpe says there are two solutions that go hand in hand.
The first is to provide targeted food subsidies to venues in disadvantaged areas.
“Australia has a very good database that shows what services there are. If we can’t do it at all we can at least do it for the most disadvantaged people,” she said.
The second solution, she suggested, was to ensure a quality framework and national quality standards for early childhood education and care where these services are “looking at the right things”.
A spokesperson for the Minister for Early Childhood Education Anne Aly said that there were requirements under the national quality framework to ensure that the food provided by the service is nutritious and sufficient in quantity.
“Services that choose to provide food are required to have policies and procedures relating to dietary and nutritional requirements. This is monitored by state and territory regulatory authorities,” they said in a statement.
“The government will consider the final recommendations from the Productivity Commission inquiry and the future of the early learning system as we design a course for universal early childhood education and care.”
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