Happy Birthday EYNP! Here's to a Second Year of Making Children Healthier!

June O'Sullivan, Chief Executive of the London Early Years Foundation

Recently I attended the Childcare Expo in Coventry to celebrate the first birthday of the Early Years Nutrition Partnership (EYNP) with our special guest Ben Faulks, better known as Mr Bloom from CBeebies.

Clearly a lot of thought and planning goes into setting up a social enterprise project such as the EYN Partnership, and so unsurprisingly the last year has just crept up on us and heyho we have celebrated a year in (social enterprise) business. For those of you who have forgotten, a social enterprise is a business model where all the profit is used to create a social good. In the case of EYNP it is to use the profit from selling a subscription to a Quality Mark accreditation service based on nutritional advice and training to nurseries to provide those in poor neighbourhoods or who are supporting high numbers of poor children with the same advice and training at subsidised cost.

The reason the EYN Partnership exists, and I speak as a member of the Board, is because we believe that nurseries have a significant role to play in providing healthy, tasty food for children. The EYNP helps nurseries to do this by supporting us to choose the right menus for the children. In a world where obesity is on the rise we need to do something to help.

Last year, I wrote a blog to support the introduction of EYNP. I saw it as one step in the solution to the growing and shameful crisis of child obesity. I argued that if we are to make progress, we needed one voice where we all come together to say the same thing, which is that:

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.

But the question now has to be have we made any progress? 

Let’s consider EYNP. In the last year, we have supported 100 nurseries with a direct benefit to around 6,000 children. We have developed a Quality Mark to recognise a whole setting approach to good nutrition, and within that scheme, our registered settings are working towards different levels of accreditation. We have launched a package of face to face training modules, and we are also offering a Level 3 CACHE Award in nutrition, with a Level 2 Award for chefs due to launch imminently. However, to better understand if we were being helpful we commissioned some research and found that:

- There remains a strong demand for all staff to improve their knowledge of nutrition
- Those nurseries which have worked with EYNP have identified a positive impact on the nursery staff and children. They noted an improvement in children’s attitudes to healthy food and drink and their behaviour at mealtime.  They noted an increase in the provision and consumption of healthy food and drink in the nursery
- The nursery menus had improved nutritional content
- Children were drinking more water
- Those settings who have been part of our first year now want a more flexible offer to sign up for a second year.

Nationally, what improvements have we seen in the last year?  There was good news at the beginning of the year when the Action on Sugar campaign got the Government to agree to implement a ban from July on online advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar aimed at children – including stopping characters and celebrities popular with children to advertise unhealthy options. This was a positive step especially as research from Ofcom found that children aged from five to fifteen spend around 15 hours a week online – overtaking the time spent watching TV for the first time. However, we waited until August 2016 for our Prime Minister, Theresa May to implement her Government’s obesity strategy.  When it came, it was a very watered down version which drew fury from the likes of Jamie Oliver, insisting her so called “action plan” should be challenged by the Trades Description Act as it had no action included.

Doctors and experts were exasperated that a raft of proposals were removed from the published strategy, including:

- Forcing restaurants, cafés and takeaways to put calorie information on menus
- Making supermarkets remove junk food from around checkouts and the end of aisles
- Limiting buy-one-get-one-free and other multi-buy discounts of unhealthy foods
- Curbs to junk food advertising, including commercial breaks in and around popular Saturday night television programmes.

Not great in a situation where obesity continues to rise not just in the UK but worldwide. On the 10th October, (World Obesity Day) Imperial College London published research in the Lancet medical journal informing us that 124 million children are obese worldwide, a more than tenfold rise over the past four decades with the potential global cost of $1.2tn by 2025. The largest increase in obese children and adolescents aged five to 19 since 1975 has been in East Asia, the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and the Middle East and North Africa. In 1975 there were five million obese girls, but by last year there were 50 million. The number of obese boys has risen from six million to 74 million in the same period. Experts say there is a serious and worsening divide between the richer families and the poorest.

Figures from Public Health England show that 11.7% of children in Year 6, aged about 11, were obese last year among the richest 5% of the population, but 26% were obese in the poorest 5%. So, the poorest children are overweight, malnourished and heading for an adulthood of long term illness.

There are many reasons for this growth and marketing and selling junk food to children heads the list. We have created a situation which has led to us becoming addicted to sugar. No wonder Jamie and others were so fed up with the current obesity strategy.  It seems that a worldwide crisis, which may result in 85% of adults having a serious illness, is insufficient to drive some serious action.

We therefore have much to do. Our call to action within our own sector is critical. Our strategy needs to:

- Ensure nursery staff learn about nutrition
- Check our menus are nutritionally balanced
- Encourage the children to understand healthy eating and make it the norm
- Increase our understanding of physical development
- Inform parents and get them involved
- Create the means of enabling all chefs working with children to complete training for the Level 2 Diploma in Food Procurement and Cooking for Early Years accredited by Cache
- Do more gardening or at least read about gardening in the nursery – watch this space for a link to my new book due to be published soon.

It’s quite a menu but one that will deliver a great supper. So, as you prepare it, why don’t you get the children to sing The Healthy Eating Song!

So, ready, steady and here we go….

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.