The study, conducted by the University of Auckland, surveyed 257 licensed childcare centres on the Ministry of Education’s ECE (Early Childhood Education) database, located in the Auckland, Waikato and Counties Manukau District Health Board Regions.
Of the childcare centres surveyed, 57 weekly full menus (defined as menus “comprising lunch and two or more snacks each day”) were analysed and evaluated in accordance with the NZ Food and Nutrition Guidelines.
The guidelines’ recommended number of servings for children aged two to four came from “each of the four food groups: vegetables and fruit, breads and cereals, milk and milk products or alternatives, and lean meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds”. Based on this, the study estimated that “a full menu should provide at least one half of a child’s daily serves of each of the four food groups”.
Food quality was measured using three markers: ‘everyday’ (high in nutrients and low in salt, sugar and saturated fat), ‘sometimes’ (a nutrient source with moderate levels of salt, sugar and / or saturated fat) and ‘occasional’ (low in nutrients and high in salt, sugar and / or saturated fat).
The study found that only three out of the 57 weekly menus analysed “provided food of sufficient quantity, variety and quality to meet half of a pre-schooler’s nutritional needs”, with occasional foods often replacing core foods.
The study also found a “strong association between the Heart Foundation’s Healthy Heart Award programme and having a high menu score”. The voluntary government-funded programme is NZ’s most widespread and comprehensive health promotion initiative, and while participation did not necessarily mean complete adherence to the guidelines, childcare services involved in the programme had better menus than those not involved.
At the same time, “menus of centres in both areas of high and low neighbourhood deprivation scored significantly better than those in areas of medium deprivation”. This was attributed to the greater likelihood of the former to be engaged in the Healthy Heart Award programme, as such areas are targeted by the Heart Foundation for interventions.
At present, over 95% of three- and four-year-old children in NZ are enrolled in ECE programmes. The country was recently listed as the OECD’s third most obese nation, and other local health concerns regarding children include low calcium, iron and vitamin D intake.
The study concluded by emphasising the “potential benefit of nutrition promotion and menu improvement in early education settings”, adding that as more young children are enrolled in ECE, more concerns will arise regarding childhood obesity, making it "imperative that the food served to children in education settings is adequately monitored”.
Source: Austalian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health
“Do childcare menus meet nutrition guidelines? Quantity, variety and quality of food provided in New Zealand Early Childhood Education services”
Authors: Sarah Gerritsen, et al.