Childhood obesity and childhood nutrition have received more attention over the past decade, becoming the target of such initiatives as First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” childcare campaign. In her efforts to promote childhood health, First Lady Obama pointed out in 2011 that “child care facilities and home-based providers can be a real building block for an entire generation of healthy kids.”
For Dr. Stacie M. Kirk, associate professor of special education and communication disorders, Mrs. Obama’s words ring true. Kirk, who has been conducting research to address issues in childhood obesity with husband Dr. Erik P. Kirk, associate professor of exercise science, agrees that child care settings are important environments where children’s health can be improved.
However, she argues that much more can be done to promote healthy eating habits of children in childcare facilities.
Despite the attention childhood obesity has received from the media, health education initiatives, and government programs like the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), the prevalence of obesity in preschool children has increased dramatically over the past five years.
“At the current rate,” Kirk said, “estimates are that by the year 2030, nearly 30 percent of children will be obese.” The CACFP reviews childcare program menus, but it does not evaluate the nutritional value of what children actually consume. Therefore, there is no assurance that what children in childcare settings actually eat meets the Recommended Dietary Allowances from the Dietary Guidelines of Americans (DGA). This, according to Kirk, can result in children receiving too many calories from fat and sugar while not getting the recommended servings of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Furthermore, she said, it is estimated that over 60 percent of three-, four-, and five-year olds are served in center-based preschool settings in the U.S., leading her to believe that such community settings are crucial in implementing preventive health initiatives.
Developing strategies to ensure that children consume a nutritious diet is at the core of Kirk’s study. She explains that, “Understanding what is actually consumed by children compared to what is found on the dietary menus and some potential factors related to why certain foods are eaten compared to others may help develop strategies.” Funded by an SIUE seed grant, Kirk’s study compares the food intake of preschool children to the recommended intake as suggested by the DGA.
In order to make this comparison, Kirk and her team have taken pictures before and after each meal—breakfast, lunch and snack, using them to measure what children are served and what they actually eat during each meal. The children also answer questions during each meal to document which foods they prefer. Through these daily observations, Kirk found clear patterns for the children’s preferences and dislikes.
Next, the research calls for the team to analyze the nutritional content of consumed food. Kirk intends to identify differences between what foods are listed on the menu, what foods are actually served, and what children actually eat so that the center’s menu cycle may be revised to more accurately meet DGA and CACFP guidelines. In turn, she also hopes that the menus based on these guidelines may be adapted to include healthy food that appeals to young children. Eventually, the information gained through Kirk’s study might be used to benefit more children in care centers throughout the country.