Given that young children are most vulnerable to malnourishment, and that good eating habits are formed early in life, the lack of regulation in nursery food appears nothing short of scandalous. But now, on the basis of a three-pronged attack, change is on its way.
Two weeks ago the Government launched a review to consider regulating the quality of food in all early years settings, and the School Food Trust simultaneously published its own research which highlights the significant gaps in current guidance.
While these two will work together under the review, impetus is also coming from the Better Nursery Food Now campaign, launched by the Soil Association and food company Organix. It has just revealed the findings of a wide-ranging survey carried out by Mumsnet, which overwhelmingly supports the call for regulation.
Pamela Brunton, Soil Association policy manager, says, 'It is very encouraging to see that the Government has finally taken responsibility for early years food.
With the backing of the DCSF and Dawn Primarolo, there is now a real opportunity to progress.'
Currently, statutory nutrition standards only apply to lunches in state nursery schools and nursery units in maintained primary schools. They are based on broad food groups and therefore fall short of the revised standards for older children in primary and secondary schools, which are based on those set by the School Food Trust.
Since 2008, the EYFS has made it a general legal requirement that 'Where children are provided with meals, snacks and drinks, these must be healthy, balanced and nutritious'. However, the EYFS does not define what this means.
The requirement also says nothing about cooking methods, does not restrict the provision of highly processed meat products and does not state what should not be served - such as foods with high levels of fat, salt and sugar.
The Better Nursery Food Now campaign has been addressing these issues since it was launched in 2008. It has taken a while to gather momentum, but a lot has happened in the short space of this year.
A BBC 'Panorama' investigation aired in January undoubtedly played an important part in raising public awareness. Drawing on a report using a sample of nurseries in Hampshire, it highlighted that even the best intentions can backfire, with some nurseries focusing too heavily on fruit and vegetables and depriving children of fat and energy levels.
Pamela Brunton believes that new regulations can address the balance required for children's healthy diets and kick-start a process of education.
She says, 'The School Food Trust is doing what we've been saying they should be doing for ages. Not only have we got the sector and parents on our side, but now we've got the Government as well.
As the review rolls out, the group believes that it has a vital part to play in supporting its research and recommendations.
Ms Brunton emphasises that the lack of consistency in guidelines has, historically, been a real problem. 'There is a lot of individual and regional guidance but there is nothing in England that provides clear, authoritative regulation,' she says. 'With the PVI sector providing the majority of nursery provision, there is a budget to provide nutritious food. According to our research, most nurseries are spending between £1 and £2 a day per child, and we have case studies that highlight how excellent food can be provided on 80p a day.'
Ms Brunton believes that the experience from school regulations on food will be enormously helpful when early years regulations are imposed. 'But it will need a lead-in time,' she says. 'Settings will have to train their staff, plan menus, gain advice from nutritionists and take parents along with them.'
Registered public health nutritionist Annie Seeley, who is a stakeholder in Better Nursery Food Now, agrees that training will be needed. 'We know there are a lot of nurseries serving good food, but statutory nutrition standards are needed to provide a safety net so that all nursery food provision meets the specific nutritional requirements for this age group. New regulations must provide a safety net to catch those who are not.
'At this age, children are learning eating habits for life and nurseries provide a great opportunity to support, promote and embed healthy eating behaviour.'
Ms Seeley adds, 'The great thing about the review into early years food is that what has gone before for schools will inform the process, and that standards will be raised across the whole spectrum of early years providers.'
Private nurseries that are providing nutritious meals and working to develop young children's understanding of food are delighted that campaigners have finally pushed the Government into action.
At the Busy Bees Group, which owns and manages 132 settings, childcare and curriculum manager Lisa Snell says, 'As the sector has grown, and children are eating more of their meals in early years settings, the need for regulation has become more pressing. It is absolutely vital that there is standardisation across all types of providers, including creches, pre-schools and childminders.
'On the subject of cost, we find that meals prepared from scratch using fresh vegetables are actually cheaper than buying in foods like processed meat. Our Cooking With Me scheme is also encouraging children to be a lot more adventurous with what they eat. If they have been involved in the preparation of food, they will be keen to eat it.'
Since the review was launched, Nursery World readers have been quick to voice their support. As one says on the NW forum, 'I know that it can be done well because I've seen the cook arrive at 7.30 to start preparing fresh vegetables, mixed fruit, homemade pastry and puddings, fresh fish, good meat and well-made sauces. It's not about cost always either, it's about putting in the time and effort.'
The results of the review, which will be concluded in August to coincide with September's review of the EYFS, are eagerly awaited.
- In 2008 the report Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie, published by the Soil Association and Organix, revealed that some nurseries were spending as little as 25p on ingredients per child's meal. See http://www.nurseryfood.org/the-report.html
- Better Nursery Food Now campaign information and full results of the Mumsnet survey, www.nurseryfood.org
- Preliminary Review of Early Years Food, Nutrition and Healthy Eating Guidance in England: A Summary, www.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk
MUMSNET SURVEY - WHAT PARENTS WANT
- Legally enforceable rules for the nutritional standards in all nurseries (89 per cent)
- Compulsory nutrition or cookery training (94 per cent)
- The banning of additives that are linked to behavioural problems or other health issues in nursery food (95 per cent)
- Government funding to help nurseries improve food provision (88 per cent)
KEY AIMS OF THE PRELIMINARY REVIEW OF EARLY YEARS FOOD
- Provide a brief review of the currently available guidance and/or standards relating to food, nutrition and healthy eating and catering in pre-school settings in the UK
- Gauge the scope and application of guidance or standards being used in current early years settings
- Consider what further guidance or standards might be useful (for example, food-based standards, nutrient-based standards, portion size data)
- Identify areas that may be important when introducing strengthened guidance or standards in settings
THE ADVISORY PANEL ON FOOD AND NUTRITION IN EARLY YEARS
The panel, which is chaired by Dr Anthony Williams, Reader in Child Nutrition and Consultant Paediatrics at St George's, University of London, met for the first time in February. It is made up of professionals from the early years sector, dieticians and children's charities.