Urgent funding call to address early childhood nutrition

The critical need for funding to audit the Early Childhood Education and Care sector and develop a Best Practice Food Environment Guide, has been highlighted by recent research.

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Urgent funding call to address early childhood nutrition

Recent studies have shed light on concerning issues regarding the quality of food provided in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services, highlighting the critical need for funding to audit the sector and develop a Best Practice Food Environment Guide, Chair of the National Nutrition Network – ECEC, from Edith Cowan University (ECU) Dr Ros Sambell said.

Currently, there are no prescribed guidelines to ensure consistent food quality across all ECEC services. However, limited data collected indicates that most services are failing to meet 50% of the Australian Dietary Guidelines for all food groups when providing meals to children.

Despite being a highly regulated sector, the lack of a best practice guide and consistent national messages in sectorial training makes it challenging for ECEC services and assessment and rating officers to accurately assess the quality of the ECEC food environment nationwide.

The National Nutrition Network – Early Childhood Education and Care (NNN-ECEC) is urgently calling for funding to develop such a guide, which will adopt a holistic approach to promoting healthy food environments within ECEC services and will include recommendations for certificate and university nutrition training for the current and future ECEC workforce.

Dr. Sambell pointed out that the current food environment is confusing for both ECEC staff and assessment and rating officers as the regulations were not providing guidance, confounded by the lack of equitable free on-the-ground support for the ECEC services nationally.

“It’s imperative that food provision becomes a standard practice in all ECEC services, and exploring options like quarantining a portion of the childcare subsidy for food provision and professional development for ECEC staff could yield significant economic and social benefits for both staff and children,” she said.

ECU Associate Dean of Public Health and OHS and Professor of Public Health and Nutrition, as well as an NNN-ECEC member, Prof Amanda Devine expressed frustration at the lack of training and a coordinated approach to nutrition education across the sector, saying it resulted in inconsistent food environments that impacted child development and the future productivity of the nation.

“This sentiment is a common issue across all Australian jurisdictions and is frequently raised by the NNN’s 35 members,” added Associate Professor Rebecca Byrne, an NNN-ECEC member from QUT, in Brisbane.

The NNN-ECEC is calling for Commonwealth funding to develop a Best Practice Food Environment Guide and to fund training for ECEC staff and assessment and rating officers regarding the expectations of a healthy food environment to transform children’s future through nutrition.

Meanwhile, in a pivotal step to address the critical lack of relevant and consistent data concerning food provision in ECEC services, the NNN-ECEC is unveiling a comprehensive solution to capture food provision types across the Australian ECEC services, to better inform resource allocation to where it is needed most.

“Food access, provision, and quality are integral components of early childhood education and health development,” said Dr. Sambell.

“Our failure to grasp the full scope of food provision in ECEC settings not only jeopardises the health and well-being of children but could also undermine their cognitive development and future productivity, and funding to support this solution.”

Following two years of extensive consultation with key stakeholders, NNN-ECEC proposes a two-pronged strategy to systematically gather and analyse data on food provision in ECEC services.

NNN-ECEC recommends integrating opportunities to capture food provision methods into existing childcare management and assessment and rating systems, as part of a comprehensive strategy to keep abreast of changes in the food provision landscape of ECEC services.

“By seamlessly incorporating these metrics, ECEC services can provide invaluable insights into their food provision practices, enabling informed decision-making and resource allocation, to support ECEC services across Australia, in a more targeted way,” Prof Devine said.

Associate Professor Byrne emphasised that the establishment of open-access databases that include comprehensive information on ECEC services’ food provision types, including on-site food, lunchboxes, and third-party food providers, would facilitate evidence-based resource allocation and strategic planning.

“These strategies not only carry minimal costs, as they leverage existing systems, but also promise to yield substantial benefits,” she said.

“By fostering more efficient resource allocation and promoting improved child health and education outcomes, the implementation of these measures represents a prudent investment in the future of our children.”

NNN-ECEC warned that inaction posed the greatest risk of all. By embracing innovative approaches to data collection and analysis, Australia can chart a transformative path toward ensuring optimal nutrition and holistic development for its youngest citizens by targeting resourcing where it is needed most.

Credit: ECU Newsroom

Click here to visit the National Nutrition Network website

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