By Professor Christine Pascal OBE, Director, Centre for Research in Early Childhood
Introduction: Why early years nutrition matters
As an early childhood educationalist and political advocate for improving young children’s social mobility through high quality early education and care, my work is all about improving the life chances of children, and particularly those who are less advantaged.
I see children’s development and learning as key to their long-term opportunities and I am convinced that having a healthy diet and a sense of positive wellbeing from birth means young children live a better quality of life, both psychologically and socially, which enables them to achieve more and achieve the social mobility which creates a more equal and inclusive society.
We have a crisis in relation to current eating patterns, which is particularly impacting on those who live in poverty or who are less advantaged in other ways. This will have a deep impact on these children’s quality of life. It is in the very early stages of life that long-term dietary habits are ingrained, and this gives us a window of time when something can be done to improve family nutrition and also (re-)set behavioural patterns in young children for life long healthy living habits.
Opportunity for change
The evidence from many studies gives us room for optimism as it indicates that early action really can make a difference to children’s projected life trajectories. If we deploy effectively and comprehensively early intervention strategies we have the chance to ensure the prevention of obesity, and secure the long-term health and wellbeing of the next generation.
There is an urgent need for the health and childcare sectors to work collectively to pool resources and offer consistent and strong messages which can change habits and create new nutrition behaviours. The current expansion of the free entitlement to early education and childcare means that children from the least advantaged families are spending increasing amounts of time in some form of professionally focused provision that provides meals for children and nutrition advice to parents. This provides a real opportunity for the sector to make a deep contribution to societal health and to change life chances for struggling families.
Action here is therefore a real investment and will save money in the long-term, so there is an economic argument but, for me, it is more than that. It is an ethical and moral issue that conveys what we as a society want to prioritise, and I believe the health and wellbeing of our communities should be at the heart of our actions, especially for the young.
It is sad to have seen the recent closure of the Children’s Food Trust, no longer able to operate and stay financially viable. As an organisation the CFT achieved a great deal in early years nutrition, and it will be a loss. We are fortunate that the EYN Partnership continues to work in this area and is a thriving social enterprise with an exciting future.
EYN Partnership & CREC
I joined the EYN Partnership Expert Panel because I believe the EYN Partnership will make a valuable contribution to this crucial agenda and it is encouraging to see three organisations with a shared cause join forces to bring change. I believe the EYN Partnership will add value to the work of CREC, local authorities and many other bodies who are working to provide support for settings to become beacons of excellence in nutritional practice and healthy early development.
I aim to use my own national and local networks at CREC to promote, with the EYN Partnership, the strong message that providing ‘healthy eating’ as part of a wider health and wellbeing agenda which all settings need to engage with, as it will ensure that all children can realise their capacity and enter their adulthood with healthy minds and bodies and in a position to make their contribution to our society.
This is the shared goal of all those who work for quality early childhood services for our children, and is very much central to the aims of CREC and the EYN Partnership. To work collectively in realising this ambition is a marker that shows that we deeply care about these issues and are willing to bring our resources to bear to change the current trajectory for too many of our children. The Future of Early Years Conference, where EYN Partnership and CREC recently shared a platform, provides a very visible illustration of this joint agenda and offers a wonderful opportunity for dialogue and the wider sharing of ideas and actions that is so crucial to enabling real and lasting change.