Early Years Settings Step Up Support for Families as Cost of Living Crisis Hits

Vitamin Angels UK extends partnership with NDNA as nurseries increase food donations and other support to struggling families and members of staff.

By Madison Gildea

Laura Weir, manager of Rosedene nursery, Hardwick: 'We are seeing the damaging effects of the ever-growing cost-of-living crisis, so we felt it was responsible to do something to help

  • One scheme provides supplementary food for low-income families
  • Nurseries providing free hot lunches for two-year-olds and running food banks
     

With the price of food and energy rising – and inflation at a 40-year high – many early years settings are thinking about how best to support their children, families and staff.

Last week, June O’Sullivan, chief executive of LEYF, called on the Government to invest in nursery food provision to tackle food insecurity.

According to market research company Kantar, food inflation is the highest for 13 years. The Office for National Statistics said inflation as measured by the consumer prices index rose to 9.1 per cent in May, the highest since February 1982. To support young children’s nutrition, Vitamin Angels UK has expanded its partnership with the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) to provide free weekly nutrient-dense supplementary food to 12 nurseries.

More than 1,000 children from low-income families now access the scheme to help improve the quality of children’s diets in London, Sowerby Bridge, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Grimsby, Darlington, Scunthorpe, Wolverhampton and Leominster.

Each week the nurseries are provided with a shopping list from which they can select five servings of fruit, five servings of vegetables, and three servings of protein-rich food items per child per week. Vitamin Angles said the programme costs about £1.75 per week (£0.35 per day). The charity provides funding direct to NDNA, which as the scheme co-ordinator places a nursery’s online shopping order, with the food delivered by the local Tesco.

Michelle Shaw, nursery manager at Central Daycare in Grimsby, said, ‘Vitamin Angels has had an immense impact on the children and families that access our service – because of their initiative, we’ve been able to give some of the most disadvantaged children access to healthy meals and snacks without a financial impact to them. Children and parents are also now more receptive to the new healthy menus – and the youngsters that previously wouldn’t eat fresh fruit and vegetables now do.’


Central Daycare in Grimsby PHOTO Vitamin Angels

Established in 1994 in the United States, the charity’s goal is to increase access to good nutrition for children under the age of five and provide prenatal vitamins and minerals for pregnant women and mothers around the world.

The scheme started as a pilot with six nurseries in 2018.

Speaking to Nursery World from Washington DC, Ann Micka, senior programme manager at Vitamin Angels, said, ‘It’s a unique model in the UK. This is a supplementary food programme to increase access to good nutrition.

‘Good nutrition in the early years lays the foundation for good health. We want to ensure all children regardless of their family situation and income have access to good, healthy foods and we’re hoping to complement the work that nurseries already do, to boost their nutrition.’

Will the scheme expand further? ‘Over time, if the funding is there, we can certainly add nurseries,’ she said.

According to the British Medical Journal, Covid has ‘exacerbated nutritional problems associated with food insecurity, including an increased risk of micronutrient deficiencies’. Micka added, ‘These issues, coupled with the crisis nurseries face to cover running costs and the increasing price of food means it’s more important than ever to provide additional support to those children most at risk.’

Prior to the scheme, NDNA found many nurseries were in need of support with offering healthy food to children, and the need is now even greater.

Chief executive Purnima Tanuku said the scheme enabled ‘children in some of our most deprived neighbourhoods [to] have access to nutritious, tasty food at nursery. We know how difficult it is for parents to make ends meet – but also how tough it is for nurseries to continue offering children healthy meals and snacks as these costs rise.’
 

Rosedene Nurseries

In North-East England, Rosedene Nurseries is offering free hot lunches for funded two-year-olds to support families with rising food costs.

The family-owned group of ten nurseries in the Tees Valley and Yorkshire originally introduced the scheme to counteract the cut in Universal Credit, but found more families needed help to feed their children nutritious food.

Department for Education figures on free school meals, released in June, found that nearly one in three children in the region are receiving free school meals.

Laura Weir, manager of Rosedene Nursery in Hardwick, said, ‘We are seeing the damaging effects of the ever-growing cost-of-living crisis, so we felt it was responsible to do something to help.

‘We knew a number of our parents would be impacted by the removal of the Universal Credit uplift, but with the increase in fuel, energy and food prices, we decided to offer free meals to any two-year-olds who would be entitled to them once they turn three.

‘With many families now having to choose between heating and eating, and the necessity to provide growing children with at least one hot, nutritious meal per day, our parents know their toddlers will come home from nursery with a tummy full of good food.

‘We have a fantastic chef and the children love sitting down together and enjoying their lunches. It’s a brilliant routine for us to share.

‘When a child turns three, we continue free meals for those who are eligible for 15 hours funding, and we review each family on an individual basis as to whether we will continue to supply free meals to those most in need.’

Weir added that she has noticed families are struggling more and are grateful for the free nursery meals.

She said, ‘We provide food parcels, hampers, and supplies such as nappies and wipes to those who we know are struggling most.

‘We have also supplied some families with activity packages over the nursery holidays to ensure they can help and support children with their learning and keep them entertained.’

The nursery also supports staff. ‘We provide fuel allowance and travel costs for staff if they are travelling any further than their usual commute to work.’
 

CASE STUDY: Ford Road Nursery and Pre-school, London Early Years Foundation (LEYF)

The 57-place nursery in Dagenham qualified for support from Vitamin Angels because of the proportion of funded two-year-old places. In addition, the nursery also runs a food bank with its donations, and contributions from some parents and staff. Vitamin Angels food is also used for healthy snacks and main meals.

The nursery buys household, baby items and toiletries that it also offers alongside the food bank.

About 80 per cent of the 130 children registered are either on two-year-old funding or the 15 hours for three- and four-year-olds. Fee-paying and working parents receiving 30-hour childcare are in the minority.

The nursery has 94 per cent occupancy. The demographic has changed in the 12 years that manager Pauline Emmins (pictured) has worked there, when there were more working parents.

‘Barking and Dagenham was a very deprived borough anyway, before Covid hit and before prices increased. Now the general population are struggling even more. It’s lovely for us to feel we can make a difference for so many families,’ she said.

The food bank is run from the community room and there is always a trolley outside the nursery for families to help themselves. The nursery also offers dinner bags, such as spaghetti with tomato sauce with a recipe card for ideas to add extra meat or veg.

‘The food bank is being used more in the last month, more products are being taken. I think more people will use it, especially when energy costs go up in October.

‘With the trolley we try to take the stigma out of it. Parents put food in their bag or buggy before they come in to collect their child.

‘It’s made the children more conscious of what they’re eating. They’ll take a piece of fruit from the trolley on their way home, so they’re getting additional fruit.

‘We have one particular family on social care. We put food in a bag and put it to one side and hand it over when that parent comes in, because she’s struggling to feed her children. So that helps her to get through the week.

‘I told staff the community room is for everybody. It’s the same rules. If we feel we need to take something, that’s absolutely fine. We have got the flipside as well, with some families and staff contributing if they feel they’re in a position to donate.’

How is the cost-of-living crisis affecting your setting?

Nursery World asked readers to share their experiences

I’m worried about everyone who works in the nursery. If they are the only income earner in the household, they will already be relying on some kind of benefits. We could increase fees, but that doesn’t help with funded places and just prices out the younger children. We can’t increase wages in line with inflation. Staff haven’t quite worked out the impact yet of increasing household and fuel costs. I’m hoping more will be done to support low-income households. We can’t cut nursery outlay, we have been budgeting hard for the last few years, essential purchases only. Plus, we get our utility bills from [the] landlord about a year in arrears, so that doesn’t help. I could charge more for consumables for the funded children, and will from September.

Paula Entwisle, Facebook
 

Our staff are struggling to make ends meet. Our qualified and experienced staff are leaving for better-paid jobs to ensure they can provide for their families. The sector is in crisis, yet only a handful of people seem prepared to do anything about it. Some affluent areas have the benefit of parents that can choose to support nurseries. Yet community nurseries, childminders and foster carers are often working for minimum wage or less.

Wendy Kek, Facebook
 

I am a childminder and work with my husband. We think about how far we are travelling when we take the children out. We haven’t raised our rates dramatically, because most of the parents aren’t getting a pay rise. We look more closely at bargains when shopping for food, but don’t want to compromise on service. If the Government paid funding rates equal to our costs, that would help as we are reliant on voluntary contributions from parents, which they might not be able to afford soon.

Sandy McLeish, Facebook
 

We are a charity-run pack-away pre-school. Our rent went up in April from £250 to £350 per week and will be going up again by January! We will probably have to close a business that started in 1969, it’s so sad the funding doesn’t cover our wages and the rent!

Tula Lee, Facebook


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