Early childhood teachers are calling for help as preschoolers turn up hungry and in ill-fitting clothes, as the Covid-19 fallout continues to hit vulnerable families hard. The charity KidsCan has just expanded its under 5s programme into 48 more early childhood centres, but a further 3,600 children in 108 centres are waiting for help.
“We are doing all we can to keep up with demand, but the waiting list just keeps growing,” KidsCan’s CEO Julie Chapman says. “Our youngest Kiwis are waking up in overcrowded homes, getting dressed in ill-fitting hand-me-downs, and finding there’s not enough food to sustain their little bodies. Early childhood centres are doing all they can to fill the gaps, but it’s becoming too much for them to cope with on their own.”
KidsCan’s early childhood programme, which started in 25 centres in late 2018, is the first of its kind in New Zealand. 4,400 children in 110 centres now receive a warm, nutritious lunch, snacks, a jacket, shoes, socks and head lice treatment.
“We started this programme because teachers in early childhood centres were desperate for the same support that school children receive from a range of organisations. Under 5s had been overlooked, and we now know this is the most crucial time for their developing minds,” Chapman says. ”When children start school on the back foot they miss out on education, which is their path out of poverty.”
The Heart Foundation helps develop KidsCan’s early childhood menu, with recipes designed to increase the amount of vegetables and quality protein that children have in their diet. Their nutrition advisors work with each centre to implement them. Centres have a choice of 20 recipes, and the ingredients are delivered fresh weekly by Countdown.
Last year a University of Waikato report found KidsCan’s programme is making a “valuable difference” to children’s wellbeing. 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.
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.”
KidsCan is calling for more support to reach the preschoolers waiting for help. “We need to reach these vulnerable children urgently. We need donations from members of the public and from businesses to help us get to these children. They don’t deserve to be sitting on a waiting list,” Chapman says.