Getting more Yorkshire carrots on plates in early years settings – exploratory research
By Dayna Brackley, Senior Food Policy Consultant, Bremner & Co.
Since February this year, FixOurFood has been working with me and Myles Bremner, from Bremner & Co, to investigate the barriers to good nutrition in early years settings in Yorkshire. The project involved interviews with local authorities’ public health and food teams, early years settings and catering providers. We did a deep dive into the settings’ make-up and health outcomes for children aged 0-5 in Yorkshire. We also analysed menus as we tried to answer two questions:
- How do early years settings currently access and provide food and what is the journey?
- What are the opportunities and barriers within the food supply chain for early years settings and how can FixOurFood work with the sector to help both improve nutrition and get more local food on plates?
As we gather our insights, I wanted to share not just a few of the findings, but also our experience of working and collaborating with the team at FixOurFood. It was truly a one-team experience – drafting the scope and defining key research questions was a collaborative process. Bremner & Co have been working in the early years space for quite a while, so we shared our learnings and then asked what FixOurFood needed to know to meet their objectives of getting more local food on early years plates.
There are 5,790 early years providers in Yorkshire – childminders, state-maintained nurseries and private and voluntary organisations (PVIs). We uncovered some important contextual issues: PVIs make up 63% of available places, with only 25% being in state-maintained and 12% in childminders. Only children in state-maintained nurseries are eligible for free school nursery meals and, even then, the data on this is opaque. The sector has voluntary standards: Eat Better Start Better. However, there is no monitoring or accountability. The sector told us nursery food is rarely mentioned in Ofsted reports and settings report that the standards are not fit for purpose. So, what are our children 0-5 eating and what impact is it having?
We did the work in stages. The initial phase comprised of informal conversations with stakeholders and uncovering insights about what the sector itself felt the issues were. FixOurFood are great at working iteratively; it wasn’t the case of having a brief, going away and coming back in two months with the answer. Halfway through, we paused, together looking at what we’d found, and thought – what next? We realised we needed to dig more deeply into procurement barriers, so that’s what we did.
We asked what the challenges were and the barriers to good nutrition. The settings told us they are doing the best they can in difficult circumstances: funding is insufficient, there is a workforce crisis, and the cost of living is taking its toll.
“Yes, you want to buy local, you want to buy organic, you want to know where it’s coming from, but we’re in an area of most deprived, it’s not a priority to our children or our parents”.
Many settings have tried to secure local Yorkshire food but have experienced issues with suppliers – the complexity of ordering from multiple places and suppliers not being able to fulfil smaller orders. It is easier for them to visit supermarkets.
“It’s just a case of finding a local supplier that can fulfil the order and has a decent range of products.”
Local authorities told us that early years is typically lower on the agenda, sometimes overshadowed by school food. Procurement rules get in the way of delivering local Yorkshire food, despite an appetite to do this.
“We’ve predominately always been commissioned to work with schools, so early years is a relatively new area for us.”
“There’s lots of conversations with the providers already in the system about investing in a local provider but, when it comes to things like buying food, caterers are solely driven by cost.”
A highlight of working with FixOurFood was the way they not only questioned the data, but what that data really means from the eyes of a child. It’s this inquisitive, questioning nature that brings out the best in small organisations, like Bremner & Co. They got the complexity of the early years food system, and really prioritised hearing from the sector, on top of crunching the numbers.
There is more to come; we’re working with FixOurFood on a report with the findings, to be published in 2024, including insights from reviewing 25 menus. Stay tuned to hear more about this journey to an early years food system in Yorkshire, where tasty, good quality, sustainable food is the default and easiest choice for all children.
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