Going hungry: Childcare centres in disadvantaged areas less likely to provide meals

In what appears to be a counter-intuitive finding, researchers have identified that children attending childcare in regional, rural or disadvantaged areas of Queensland are less likely to be provided with meals, compared than those at centres in more affluent areas.

Researchers at the University of Queensland analysed the relationship between meal provision at 947 Queensland childcare centres against measures of social disadvantage.

Professor Karen Thorpe from the University’s Queensland Brain Institute led the study published in Social Science & Medicine.

“We discovered only 65 per cent of childcare centres in rural and remote areas provide food,” Professor Thorpe said.

“Often it’s about keeping costs down, with services providing lunch for children charging up to $140 a day compared to as low as $60 a day for those without meals.”

Not all childcare centres provide food — some require families to provide food from home.

The study analysed data on meal provision for more than 900 centres from the Australian Government’s Childcare Finder website (a site which details centre fees, places, meals and national quality rating).

Even within urban areas, centres located in disadvantaged areas were less likely to provide meals than those in more affluent locations.

Thorpe says the study found some families living below the poverty line simply couldn’t afford enough food for their children, or if they did, it was poor quality.

The findings are significant given food insecurity – the lack of access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food – can affect children’s health, development, behaviour and capacity to learn. Inadequate food or nutrition can also be a significant stressor for parents and families the paper notes.

“We know without adequate nutrition it’s harder for children to learn and regulate their behaviour,” Thorpe says.

“For children living in disadvantage, to then get poor quality food at childcare, is a further blow.”

Read more: (H)anger is real: your bad mood and empty stomach are linked

Childcare centres in Australia must meet the requirements of the National Quality Standards. The standard does not stipulate that centres provide food, only providing guidance on the quality of food provided by centres or by families.

Thorpe says the provision of high-quality food in Queensland’s most disadvantaged communities should be a public health priority.

“It would mean children can learn and have a positive trajectory in health and education,” she says.

“You can’t deliver a high-quality education program if the children and staff are going hungry.”

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