If your under five is picky about their food, then it’s worth remembering that choosiness is a luxury others can’t afford.
A new study has found that nearly half of Kiwi families struggle to access healthy food in their child’s first year of life, and this is a cause for concern in babyhood – and beyond.
The researchers say food hardship can have a negative downstream impact on children’s diets, so let’s explore the study in more detail.
What was the aim of the food hardship study?
This study is the first to look at the effects of food hardship on Kiwi preschoolers’ nutrition.
It was conducted by the University of Auckland and University of Otago, Wellington, using information from nearly 6,000 families participating in the Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study of child development.
The researchers wanted to see whether food hardship impacted young children’s nutrition, and to explore this, they measured food hardship when children were nine-months-old and then four-and-a-half-years-old.
What measures did the researchers use?
At both ages, the researchers analysed these three measures of food hardship:
- Whether families had been forced to buy cheaper food to pay for other things they needed,
- Whether they’d gone without fresh fruit and vegetables because of cost, and
- Whether they’d used special food grants or food banks in the previous 12 months.
The researchers then explored the link between these kinds of food hardship and children’s nutrition, looking particularly at:
- How long they were breastfed for,
- How much fruit and veg they consumed, and
- Their consumption of unhealthy food and drinks.
What did the researchers discover about food hardship?
Lead researcher, Dr Sarah Gerritsen says, ‘We discovered that food hardship was most prevalent when children were infants and this influenced the quality of nutrition children received, even once we accounted for differences in family circumstances, such as income and education.’
When littlies were nine-months-old, the study found that:
- Half of mums had been forced to buy cheaper food so they could pay for other things,
- One in eight had gone without fresh fruit or veg to pay for other things they needed, and
- One in eight had used food grants or food banks.
Dr Gerritsen says, ‘Indicators of healthy nutrition were suboptimal for all children, but were significantly worse among children who had experienced food hardship at either time point.’
Children whose families experienced food hardship were more likely to have:
- Stopped breastfeeding before they turned one,
- Had fewer servings per day of fruit and veg, when nine-months-old,
- Had a less varied intake of fruit and veg at four-years-old,
- Tried unhealthy food and drinks early in infancy, and
- Drank three or more soft drinks per week at four-years-old.
The study also found a worrying link between the use of food grants/banks and an unhealthy diet.
Infants were 45 per cent more likely to have tried unhealthy food and sugary drinks if their families had used food grants/banks.
Were the findings different between ethnicities?
The study found that all three types of food hardship were associated with, ‘Poorer child nutrition across the board, regardless of ethnicity.’
However, Pasifika and Māori families were much more likely to have experienced all types of food hardship, and for this hardship to persist through the preschool years.
Around 40 per cent of Pasifika children and 35 per cent of Māori children lived in households that used food grants/banks when they were nine-months-old or four-and-a-half-years-old.
Why are so many Kiwi families struggling to access healthy food for their under-fives?
Dr Gerritsen says more research is needed to understand why unhealthy food options are linked with food hardship, but she says the ‘primary determinant’ of food hardship in young families is low income.
She explains that, ‘Having young children is a financially stressful time for families, with increased costs and generally lower income. It’s clear that this has flow-on effects for household food purchases and the quality of food children are fed.’
COVID-19 hasn’t helped, either, with an increase in the number of families accessing food hardship assistance from the government and charities during the pandemic.
Dr Gerritsen says, ‘It may [also] be that families experiencing food hardship are particularly vulnerable to a lack of access to local healthy food options, while unhealthy food and drink is cheap and easily available.’
What should happen, going forward?
Dr Gerritsen says, ‘It is worth exploring initiatives which increase the affordability, availability and promotion of healthy food’ in New Zealand, and explains that, ‘Adequate social assistance for families with young children is an important and significant way to improve our children’s nutrition, which in turn improves general health and wellbeing.’
She says more targeted assistance for families with young children might be needed, and notes that the government has:
- Extended Ka Ora, Ka Ako, the free and healthy lunch programme in schools,
- Made changes to the benefit system to provide financial relief to families, and
- Invested $32 million over three years to help communities become food secure.
All in all, Dr Gerritsen says, ‘The first year of life is so important for a child’s immediate and ongoing health and development. It’s critical that we take steps to ensure that all families can provide their children with healthy food during this time when their brains and bodies are growing so rapidly. It’s also an important time to develop the healthy eating behaviours and food preferences that last into adulthood.’
You can read the full Food Hardship and Early Childhood Nutrition findings here, and we hope that all children can access good food in the near future.