Thousands of preschoolers wait for help as the Covid-19 fallout hits under fives

Thousands of preschoolers wait for help as the Covid-19 fallout hits under fives

Monday, September 21, 2020

Early childhood centres are reporting an increasing number of children arriving without enough food or warm clothing as their families struggle with the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic. 4370 children in 119 early childhood centres are waiting for KidsCan help, including 35 centres who have applied since the virus hit.  

“It’s crucial that we reach these preschoolers waiting for support as soon as possible,” KidsCan’s founder and CEO Julie Chapman says. “Increasingly, their families cannot make ends meet. Teachers have told us of siblings with only a packet of two-minute noodles to share for the day, of children shivering without enough warm clothes, and of several families crammed into houses to afford rent, including 11 people in a 2 bedroom home.”  

KidsCan is calling for help from Kiwis to extend its early childhood programme, which provides nutritious lunches, snacks, raincoats, shoes and head lice treatment to under 5s. The programme, which started with a pilot in 25 centres in late 2018, is the first of its kind in New Zealand. This year support has been extended and the programme now runs in 61 centres. 

Researchers have found the programme is making a “valuable difference” to children’s wellbeing. With government funding, the University of Waikato carried out in-depth interviews with teachers and whānau in 7 centres before the scheme started, and again when children had received at least six months of KidsCan support. They also gathered survey data from teachers and whānau in 24 centres. 

Researchers found:  

  • Good nutrition and warm clothing meant children were more engaged in learning, with increased energy and attention spans 
  • There were fewer minor health issues, like coughs and colds, leading to reduced absences due to sickness. 
  • Centres who had been providing food themselves instead spent money on educational resources, improved their environments, and devoted more time to teaching  

“You’ve got that fight or flight response when you’re hungry and tired, so teachers saw a real difference in the way children could just participate in the learning opportunities when their tummies were full. They were more persistent, they were more resilient, they got on better with their peers,” says the report’s lead author, Associate Professor Sally Peters from Waikato University’s School of Education.  

“An unexpected bonus of the programme was just this sense of wellbeing and community.  One of the really important things that KidsCan does is providing the programme to everybody because then there’s no stigma. It was a weight off the shoulders of struggling families.”  

The Heart Foundation approves the programme’s menu, with recipes designed to increase the amount of vegetables and quality protein options that children have in their diet. Their nutrition advisors work with each centre to implement the menus. Centres have a choice of 20 recipes, and the ingredients are delivered fresh each week by Countdown.  

“The under 5 years are critical because we need to get kids off to the best start in life and lay a strong platform for the future with good nutrition,” the Heart Foundation’s Dave Monro says. “There are a range of longer term consequences of being exposed to a poor diet, including being at a far greater risk of developing heart disease and other conditions later in life.”   

Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis says New Zealand needs to focus much more on the early childhood sector.  “It’s deeply embedded in our culture that your outcomes are a lot about what high school you went to. But the science of the last 20 years shows us that the exact opposite is true. We can statistically predict a lot of your outcomes as an adult from the age of 3.  

“Good nutrition is crucial because a child’s brain is just not going to develop without it. Being hungry denies them the ability to grow their frontal cortex, to be able to access their ability to regulate emotions and prevent anxiety and depression. Feeding kids in early childhood is actually just a really smart investment. That’s really where you’re going to make a difference in the whole lifespan. I can’t really stress enough how important it is.”