Good Eats for Growing Minds: The Importance of Healthy Food for Pre-K Children

Through partnerships with community organizations and state and local leaders, Minnesota has spent the past decade building support for young children to ensure they’re set up for a lifetime of academic success. But success in school isn’t the only thing that can be impacted by early intervention; the foundations for a lifetime of healthy eating are also established before children start school—when they’re learning what foods to eat and developing their tastes. Upwards of 73% of preschool-aged children spend substantial amounts of time in child care, which means that child care providers can have a significant influence on their eating habits and what foods they enjoy. And considering more than 16% of Minnesota children are food insecure—meaning they don’t always have enough food at home for a healthy, active lifestyle—child care environments can be the only place where they learn about healthy eating.

All of this means one very real thing: child care providers have a unique and substantial role to play in children’s nutrition and future health.

What We Heard

Food Charter participants had a lot to say about the challenges of healthy food access in child care settings—and also contributed a number of important ideas for how to improve the availability of healthy food, ensuring that we set young Minnesotans up to live long, healthy lives.

Access and cost are some of the biggest barriers to ensuring Minnesota’s children enjoy healthy food while at child care.

For many child care providers, offering nutritious options are too costly. The federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) provides some child care centers with reimbursements to purchase healthy food, but the reimbursements are often not enough to cover the higher costs of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and unprocessed snacks. When child care providers are located far away from food sources like grocery stores, the issue is compounded, as it’s easier to buy non-perishable foods in bulk rather than fresh seasonal options that are more difficult to keep.

According to Food Charter participants, addressing these issues will require cooperation from a multitude of stakeholders:

  • Government: State and local governments can offer clearer expectations about what food should be served to children in child care settings, and CACFP reimbursements need to better reflect the cost of fresh and nutritious food. There are a number of centers that aren’t enrolled in the reimbursement program, so targeted outreach to get more providers signed up can also contribute to the effort.
  • Food Providers: Food Charter participants suggested that places that provide food for child care centers —from large foodservice companies to grocery stores down the block—offer more healthy food options at more reasonable prices. Providers also need to be clearer about what is in so-called “healthy options” so that providers can make more informed decisions about their food purchases.
  • Communities: Things like farm-to-child care programs or local farmers’ markets can help increase the amount of fresh produce at child care centers as well as support local farms and farmers.

Beyond Structural Challenges: Training and Support

But child care providers don’t just face issues with access; they also often lack experience and the necessary training. Food Charter participants express concern that some child care providers offer sugary treats as rewards for good behavior, and can often fall back on easy and familiar meals rather than introducing new healthy foods to the children in their care. It takes a certain amount of know-how to understand the best ways to get a child to try an unfamiliar healthy food, and working with children from different cultures can make it especially difficult to prepare nutritious meals that they will eat. In addition to the structural barriers to access, participants indicated a need for additional support such as:

  • Increased Access to Training: Training for providers about nutrition and good eating habits is important. This type of professional development should include how to model good eating habits, coach young children on developing taste preferences and a willingness to try unfamiliar foods. Participants suggested that these trainings could be a requirement for licensure to ensure that all Minnesota child care centers are equally prepared to give kids what they need.
  • Community Support: It’s just as important to have continuing resources to support providers between these more formal training sessions. Things like assessment tools, curriculum to help teach kids about healthy food options, and tips for working with children from various cultural backgrounds can ensure that nutritious food is a continued priority for many child care providers.
  • Support from Parents: It’s difficult to ensure children eat healthy foods when parents send their kids to child care with sugary snacks or lunches loaded with processed foods. Increasing parents’ awareness of the importance of good nutrition through outreach programs and trainings would not only improve the health of the individual child, but also minimize the challenge of getting them to try new, healthy options.

Tune In

We’ll expand on these issues and more on the upcoming webinar, For Our Healthy Future: Healthy Food Access in Child Care Settings, on Thursday, August 21 at 11:00 a.m. We’ve made great strides in making sure young children have the tools they need to succeed in school; now it’s time to ensure they’re also set up to live healthy lives.