Is the quality of pre-school food a health or education issue?

From Morton Michel Childcarer Issue 23

There appears to be confusion at the heart of government about what department is responsible for ensuring healthy eating and good food for children under five in England’s day nurseries and pre-schools. Is good food a health or education issue? The question was raised after Health Minister Ben Bradshaw visited Westminster Children’s Society’s Katharine Bruce Day Nursery in central London last month to sample the cuisine it serves young children as part of its ‘Glorious Food’ campaign to establish a healthy attitude to food in children’s early years.

TThe issue of children developing healthy eating habits from a young age is an important one that the Government appears to be paying only lip-service to. When asked what the Government is doing about ensuring young children eat healthily when in registered daycare, a DCSF spokeswoman said, “We agree it is important that all childcare settings support parents in helping young children develop healthy habits.

“That is why it is a legal requirement in all childcare settings, including childminders, nurseries and daycare, that where children are provided with meals, snacks or drinks, these must be healthy, balanced and nutritious. We have also provided guidance on early years diet and nutrition to all those working with young children. Ofsted inspects all childcare settings on these legal requirements and they would take action if they were not being met. We trust their judgement and are encouraged by their own survey which rated the majority of providers as good or outstanding in relation to providing a healthy diet.”

But Annette Brooke, Liberal Democrat spokeswoman for children, is so concerned that the Government is fudging the issue of good food in daycare settings that she tabled a question in the House of Commons asking what guidance on the topic has been issued by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).

In response, Sarah McCarthy-Fry, Labour MP for Portsmouth South, who is parliamentary under-secretary for schools and learners, said, “The statutory framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage sets quality standards for learning and care for all settings looking after children aged from birth to five. This makes clear that where children are provided with a meal, snacks and drinks, these must be healthy, balanced and nutritious.”

Mrs Brooke then pointed out that as there is clear guidance, if it is not being implemented then it should be made statutory and monitored by Ofsted. Presumably as Health Minister, Ben Bradshaw will have an opinion – especially since he has so recently visited a day nursery that prides itself in its healthy eating. So I called his office in the House of Commons, only to be told that I needed to contact the Department of Health as it was a health-related matter. I did so, only to be told that Mr Bradshaw would not comment as it was in fact a matter for the DCSF.

Talk about going round in circles. After all the fuss being made about the quality of secondary school dinners, surely the Government recognises that it should introduce statutory nutrient-based standards for children under the age of five in registered daycare provision in England, just as has happened in Scotland.

Or as June O’Sullivan, Chief Executive of Westminster Children’s Society, puts it, “We strongly believe in not waiting until children reach primary school age to get it right when it comes to having an awareness of good food and having an appetite for healthy eating.”

Perhaps this is what the Government believes too. But you would expect food to be a Department of Health issue. After all, the long-term consequences of a poor diet make it one. But the DCSF insists that food in daycare is an issue it is responsible for, yet only appears to pay lip service when it comes to doing something about improving it. Joined-up government indeed.

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