Early childhood obesity is a major U.S. public health problem, afflicting children from low-income and minority families in rural areas disproportionately with an increased risk for long-term health disparities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Children’s vegetable consumption has been consistently lower than nutritional recommendations, which has been linked to the higher prevalence of obesity.
Saima Hasnin, doctoral candidate in the Department of Child, Youth and Family Studies, is leading a project to better understand family child care home (FCCH) providers’ preparation and serving of vegetables, and their influence on children’s vegetable consumption.
Hasnin notes that vegetables tend to be the most wasted food group in child care settings, and that studies suggest most young children do not eat their recommended daily requirement of vegetables.
“I cook often and love my vegetables,” she said. “So I was interested in learning why vegetables are going to waste and why children are eating fewer vegetables.”
Because child care providers and parents have reported that children often dislike the taste of vegetables, Hasnin is examining how vegetables are being prepared and served to children.
Adult concerns about wasting food, Hasnin said, is another contributing factor to vegetable underconsumption among young children.
“Child care providers want to avoid the cost of wasting food, so knowing vegetables are the most likely foods to be wasted, they sometimes are unwilling to serve vegetables to the children, or pressure children to eat more vegetables,” she said.
Beginning in spring 2022, Hasnin and her team will observe 70 children at participating FCCH sites throughout rural Nebraska. Researchers will travel to the sites for two days of lunchtime observation to collect data on what food children are served and how much they eat. They will then calculate an average of the children’s nutritional intake.
Researchers will also gather data using a Veggie Meter® — a portable device that enables rapid, non-invasive optical assessment of human skin carotenoids, which protect the skin from sunlight-induced oxidation effects. Carotenoids also serve as biomarkers of dietary intake of carotenoid-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables.
Providers and parents will provide additional data via online surveys about their feeding practices, vegetable preparation and serving processes.
The project is funded by grants from the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (OPRE), which is part of the Administration of Children and Families.
With the help of Nebraska Extension, providers will be recruited as a part of a larger randomized control trial — the Ecological Approach to (EAT) Family Style project, led by Dipti Dev, associate professor of child, youth and family studies. Dev is the chair and advisor for Hasnin’s doctoral program and is the faculty mentor for her project.
EAT Family Style is designed to promote evidence-based, nutrition-related best practices in facilities that care for children ages 5 and younger. It aims to enhance young children’s health through better feeding practices and dietary habits in early care and education programs.
The project will recruit rural Nebraska FCCH providers participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program, a federal nutrition program that provides reimbursement for nutritious meals and snacks to eligible children and adults enrolled at participating child care centers, day care homes and adult day care centers.
Hasnin aims to use her findings to help FCCH providers modify their vegetable preparation and serving practices to make vegetable consumption more appealing to children.
“Early childhood is when a person’s dietary habits are developed, and those habits continue into adulthood,” she said. “The habits someone develops as a young child have a long-lasting effect on their lifetime health and nutritional status.”