Daycares aren’t always serving the nutritious food they promise, Canadian study finds

Some Canadian schools are switching up the lunch ritual with reverse lunch, where students go outside to play and then sit down to eat. FatCamera / Getty Images

Every day, daycare director Daniela Durisova of Upper Yonge Village Daycare Centre in Toronto must feed the mouths of 59 hungry tots, all while making sure they get the proper nutrition they need to grow and be healthy.

And while healthy meal preparation may (in theory) seem easy, it’s a process that takes a lot of time and planning.

Not only does Durisova have to coordinate the meals with the catering service she contracts out, but she and the catering service must adhere to legislation – called the Ontario Child Care Early Years Act (CCEYA) – put forth by the Ontario government that outlines what she must and must not do when providing daily sustenance for the kids.

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This piece of legislation requires Durisova and other daycare providers in Ontario to provide meals and snacks that meet the nutritional recommendations set forth in Canada’s Food Guide.

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This includes preparing three snacks that include two or three food groups, Durisova explains, as well as a lunch that includes all four food groups.

Then once the menus are decided upon, Durisova informs parents of what their child will be eating every day. They also receive a report at the end of the day telling them what their child ate and didn’t eat at meal times.

Meal prep becomes even more challenging when factoring in allergies and other special dietary needs, Durisova says, but it’s something that must be done.

“I can only speak for my centre,” Durisova says. “But I don’t think something like providing nutrition to the kids is something that should be missed and I don’t see that [being a problem] in the Toronto area.”

But it is a problem elsewhere in Canada, according to a new Canadian study published Thursday in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

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According to researchers at Université de Sherbrooke in Québec, the food children are being served at daycare centres may not always be as nutritious as parents are led on to think — especially in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, a new Canadian study warns.

The study found that many childcare centres in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, in particular, are failing to meet the nutritional recommendations set forth by their respective provincial governments.

To find this out, researchers looked at the lunch content in 61 randomly selected childcare centres in the two provinces. Lunches were measured on two consecutive days by weighing each food item and by visually documenting the food items with photos. The food was then categorized into the food groups according to the Canada Food Guide, and nutrients analyzed using analysis software.

Besides comparing both provinces, researchers also looked into whether there were differences between French and English daycares and urban and rural centres.

And what they found was that, on average, the childcare centres did not meet provincial recommendations.

“Daycare centres are really a key opportunity to help children adopt and create a healthy relationship with food and adopt a healthy diet,” study author Dr. Stephanie Ward says. “So there’s so much potential to create healthy food environments within daycare centres, so I think it’s important to focus on those locations.”

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Lunches in both provinces were low in calories (less than 517 calories) and fibre (less than 7 g).

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Saskatchewan centres, however, served greater amounts of food when compared to New Brunswick centres. French-speaking daycares provided less fat, less saturated fat and fewer servings of meat and alternatives and more trans fat than English-speaking daycares.

There were no differences seen between rural and urban centres.

According to Ward, there isn’t one universal legislation or set of recommendations that all daycares in Canada must follow. Instead, each province has its own that childcare centres are required to adhere to.

(New Brunswick’s policies can be seen in the Child Day Care Facilities Operator Standards, and Saskatchewan’s in the 2015 Child Care Regulations.)

However, some provinces have better regulations than others, Ward says. And not only that, but enforcement of any legislation by provincial governments is often lacking, she adds.

“When it comes to New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, in particular, the policies really only refer to Canada’s Food Guide and suggest that kids are served one full serving of those four food groups,” she says. “The problem here is that kids of that preschool age tend to have very small appetites and childcare centers are aware of this so they’re not necessarily meeting those recommendations. So is the problem with the recommendations or is it that educators are not offering enough food? I think the problem is with both and I think the guidelines need to reflect the reality of the age group that we’re working with.”

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Another issue, Ward points out, is that some daycare centres are mindful of their food waste. Because many kids don’t often like to eat their fruits and vegetables, daycare centres will lessen the portions to avoid any excess food waste, she says.

Because of this practice, kids continue to miss out on valuable nutrition.

“We also need daycare centres to understand that kids are not often exposed to these vegetables outside of the home, so it’s important to provide those opportunities to give those fruits and vegetables and present them that variety,” Ward says. “And enforcement is always an issue with any type of policy. So when it comes to guidelines, enforcing becomes really difficult. There’s not really a food police that goes around and checks all the menus so daycare centres are often left to do what they think is best.”

But in some provinces, like in Ontario for example, the Ministry of Education has an enforcement team that will take enforcement action against licensed and unlicensed childcare providers that are contravention of the CCEYA, ministry spokesperson Heather Irwin says.

“If a ministry inspector observes that a requirement is not being met, non-compliance is cited under the applicable regulator provision on the licensing checklist,” Irwin explains. “Where non-compliance is cited, the licensee will be provided with compliance requirements and an appropriate deadline by which compliance must be demonstrated.”

If not, “appropriate and progressive enforcement action” will be taken to promote compliant with the Act.

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Ontario itself isn’t seeing a widespread issue with daycares meeting nutritional requirements, but Irwin does say that four per cent of complaints received by the ministry last year about licensed childcare were related to nutrition.

Any concerns are dealt with on a case by case basis as a regular part of licensing and monitoring.

The situation is similar in B.C., Ministry of Health spokesperson Laura Heinze, explains.

As part of the Child Care Licensing Regulation, daycare centres that provide food need to serve nutritious meals that comply with Canada’s Food Guide. In many cases, centres will work with parents to provide resources about healthy meals and snacks where parents provide the meals and snack for their child, Heize says.

Licensing officers with the regional health authorities are responsible for monitoring compliance with the regulations around nutrition and healthy meals when inspections are conducted.

If a centre doesn’t follow the regulation in terms of nutrition provided to the kids, officers will first try an educative approach to help daycare providers meet the regulations. This approach, Heize says, is typically successful.

However, progressive enforcement may also be used if needed, she adds.

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“We need to have better guidelines and policies,” Ward says. “[These policies] not only need to focus on the quality of the food, but also feeding practices — for example, not forcing kids to eat. So these policies and guidelines need to take into consideration all those things, including the age group and the reality of the daycare centre. And they also need to provide resources for these centres to actually follow these guidelines — it’s one thing to put these policies out, but if there are no resources available for centres to actually apply them, then it becomes a lot more challenging to see them implemented.”

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