Children ‘arriving hungry’ as nurseries in England plead with ministers for extra funds

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Ministers are facing calls to help nurseries continue providing nutritious meals amid evidence that growing numbers of young children are arriving hungry.

Analysis of a survey of 500 childcare providers and professionals, shared exclusively with the Observer, found that rising food costs were having an impact on the vast majority of them. Almost one in 10 said they had turned to food redistribution charities to help provide food in their settings.

Childminders and nurseries are also having to change their menus or pass on extra costs, despite concerns that parents are already struggling with childcare bills amid the cost of living crisis. More than six in 10 (62%) said they have been forced to use cheaper ingredients when providing meals, 15% have reduced their portion sizes and 9% have used food redistribution charities.

With Rishi Sunak already under pressure to act on childcare costs, 56% of providers said they have had no option but to pass costs on to parents. The news also comes as childcare professionals are reporting growing signs of food insecurity.

Many parents in the UK pay more on nursery fees than their mortgage repayments or rent – a report last year put the average cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under the age of two at £14,000.

In England, certain poorer households qualify for 15 hours free childcare for two-year-olds. All households are given 15 hours childcare for three- and four-year-olds, and some families with working parents qualify for 30 free hours. However, providers say the rates they are given for free hours are insufficient, forcing nurseries to push up their fees for paying parents.

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The new survey, compiled by the Early Years Alliance and the London Early Years Foundation, found that about half (49%) of providers said children or families at their settings were showing signs of food insecurity, with respondents noticing an increase in the number of children arriving hungry. While all children in reception, year 1 and year 2 attending state-funded schools in England are eligible for a free school lunch, state childcare support does not cover provision of food.

Stella Freebody, manager of the Oak Tree Nursery in Ilfracombe, Devon, said she had been helping several families access additional state support as they struggled with costs. She also said menus had changed to keep costs down. “Sometimes we have packed lunches brought to the nursery and you can see the impact of the cost of living crisis on those,” she said. “With some of them, we take a look and then try to make them a sandwich, or something like that to try to bulk it out or make it more nutritious. Our food spend is up about £1,000 on last year. It has put huge pressure on us.”

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said the findings were “incredibly concerning”. June O’Sullivan, head of the London Early Years Foundation, said providers were watching as a “gulf grows between stagnant government funding and increasing costs”.

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Emma Lewell-Buck, the Labour MP for South Shields, who has been campaigning for better provision in the north of England, said a scheme helping poorer households with food costs must be expanded. “Food is essential for a child’s health, growth and development, but when families face financial hardship, they have no choice but to reduce food quality, skip meals, cut portion sizes or simply go without,” she said.

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“It’s about time they took immediate action by supporting pre-school children through expanding the Healthy Start scheme to all families on universal credit and increasing its value in line with inflation to ensure they can have the best start in life.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said the government was looking at the problems around childcare, but that help was already being provided. The government had increased support for three- and four-year-olds, introduced 15 hours’ free childcare a week for disadvantaged two-year-olds and allowed people on universal credit to claim back up to 85% of their childcare costs.

“We recognise that families and early-years providers across the country are facing financial pressures, and we are currently looking into options to improve the cost, flexibility and availability of childcare – ensuring that any plans we bring forward focus on improving outcomes for children,” they said. “We’re investing millions in better training for staff working with pre-school children, and have set out plans to help providers run their businesses more flexibly.”

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