June O'Sullivan, Chief Executive of the London Early Years Foundation
Like any sensible blogger, I always check what I have written and how much I have written about a particular subject before putting together a new blog. I was therefore mightily disheartened when I realised that I have been writing about childhood obesity and the need for a strategic and collaborative approach since 2012. Clearly, my message has fallen on deaf ears even though the statistics continue to get even more worrying, not just for the people themselves but also for the huge health costs to the NHS (£5.8billion every year with childhood obesity related illnesses such as asthma in England costing £51m per year).1
I hardly need to remind you of the large body of evidence that demonstrates the importance of a healthy and balanced diet to infant’s and children’s early development. While it might seem an obvious statement, a good diet from an early age protects children from chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity and heart disease in adulthood. So even if common sense doesn’t sway you, a raft of research supports this statement.
Here are some of the current facts that made me choke on my chocolate (in no particular order!):
1. Currently, one in five children in the UK starts school overweight or obese2
2. Over the long-term, childhood obesity is a strong predictor of obesity in adulthood, which is a major risk factor for several chronic conditions and premature mortality3
3. Weight problems in children are unacceptably high, especially among low-income populations. Obesity prevalence for children living in deprived areas is double that of those living in the least deprived areas.4 Low income households have diets that are deficient in fresh fruit and vegetables, deficient in iron folate and vitamin D and high in sugar and saturated fats.5
4. As well as obesity some toddlers already have nutritional problems that can have immediate and long-term effects on their health, growth and development. Food allergies, iron deficiency, tooth decay and constipation are common in the early years.6
5. 32% of parents struggled to deal with their toddler’s eating pattern and a fifth of mothers were unsure about what was healthy for their baby or toddler to eat.7
Clearly, we have a problem! There are many people trying to respond but we seem to have failed to develop an effective strategic response. Hear the disappointment from the great and good (including Jamie Oliver) at the (frankly anorexic) 12 page national Childhood Obesity Plan launched in August. Early Years merits a mere paragraph!
It’s generally easier to change knowledge but this does not necessarily lead to a change in behaviour. Early years practitioners (and chefs) need to be trained and have appropriate qualifications. And nothing changes unless we get those who work with parents regularly to be part of the plan.
The Early Years Nutrition Partnership
I have decided as the leader of an organisation dedicated to the care and education of children under five, and as somebody deeply worried by the statistics, to partner with the Pre-school Learning Alliance, the British Nutrition Foundation, and Danone Nutricia Early Life Nutrition, and to take a seat on the Board of the Early Years Nutrition Partnership.
As a social entrepreneur myself I have always admired what Mohamed Yunus (in my opinion one of the great social entrepreneurs) tried to do through Grameen Bank. I therefore followed his work with Danone with great interest. His book7 tells the story, warts and all, and it made me feel positive about working with a company like Danone; prepared to change, amend and revise its approach to deliver effective social impact for the benefit of children.
The Early Years Nutrition Partnership (EYN Partnership) has been set up as a Community Interest Company (CIC) to lock our asset. This is the means of preventing any partner following their own approach and using any funds for anything other than agreed in the Memorandum. We had an official launch last month at the House of Commons where I joined a panel of experts for a Question Time themed discussion on early years nutrition.
What’s the plan? It’s based on two premises:
Firstly our duty is to ensure children enjoy a healthy and balanced diet while in our care. Successful catering in a nursery pulls together our knowledge of food and nutrition, our understanding of child development including weaning, and food faddiness and our skills to help children try and enjoy new foods whilst supporting parents.
Secondly understanding the crucial role nurseries and childminders play in helping parents become more confident about how to best feed and nourish their children as well as accessing ways of keeping themselves fit and healthy.
In reality it looks like this:
1. Develop guidance for nurseries to help them check their menu is healthy on the basis that toddlers’ diets are different to that for an older child or an adult.
2. Develop a social enterprise business model which will secure the EYN Partnership future with an effective pricing structure to allow all settings to access this help at an affordable rate.
3. Create the means of enabling all early years practitioners and chefs working with children to increase their competence and skills, for example by completing a Level 2 Diploma in Food Procurement and Cooking for Early Years or a Level 3 Award in Nutrition and Hydration in the Early Years, both accredited by CACHE
If we are to make progress, we need one voice where we all come together to say the same thing; it’s unacceptable and unfair that children march towards adulthood carrying the burden of obesity, unhealthy habits and one foot in the hospital all because they have been poorly fed in childhood.
Graham Green said, “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in. It’s time we all opened the same door together.”
June O’Sullivan, MBE, is CEO of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), an early-years campaigner and a member of the Social Enterprise UK Board as well as the Board of the EYN Partnership.