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Helping children make better choices

Two women with a driving passion to see hungry people in their communities well fed, are pooling their expertise, experience and resources to make a difference in the nutrition landscape in Ethekwini.

Watch their conversation here

Cathy Whittle of The Domino Foundation’s Nutrition Programme and Jabu Nkomo of Isheq Solutions have been collaborating for four years to instill an awareness of a healthy and affordable eating lifestyle within the Early Childhood Development Centres and schools. Undernutrition and essential nutrient deficiencies results in 38% of South African children under five years old, suffering from SWO i.e. stunting, wasting and obesity. Jabu commented that, against the background of poor diet in the formative years, the starch-heavy menus of many Mzansi homes are contributing significantly to extremely high incidences of diabetes and high blood pressure, and dependence on chronic medication.

“We have worked hard to change the mind-sets of the adults, but have found too often they are entrenched in their old ways. We have realised that a far more effective way is to teach the children at an early age that a far brighter future is waiting for them if they eat healthily”.

In Domino’s Nutrition space where, in 2020, 367,000 meals were prepared and delivered to beneficiaries on the foundation’s ECD, Babies’ Home and Life Skills Programmes, has grown the fundamental understanding that hungry or malnourished people need to be empowered to make good decisions about how they are going to feed themselves. Cathy added: “The old adage says ‘You are what you eat’, should be changed to ‘How you eat today, you will pay for tomorrow’ positively or negatively”. She and Jabu see that whatever food is offered, nutritious or otherwise, will be gratefully accepted but, with an understanding of ‘what will benefit my body in the long-run’, that will only be a stop-gap solution.

The collaboration between Domino and Ishaq is taking them into the 64 crèches where the foundation’s ECD (Early Childhood Development) Programme works alongside the owners and staff to empower them to enable the little people in their charge, to make healthier food choices. Jabu said that initial attempts to train the owners in good nutritional habits encountered challenges, because of a lack of resources and of a perception that good nutrition really wasn’t that important in the scale of what the crèches were offering. Cathy pointed out that for so long the crèches have been seen by the communities they serve and by the owners themselves purely as child-minding facilities.

The ECD Programme has implemented a far more holistic training for the crèches’ staffs to set the children on a sound path to school-readiness, which includes sound nutrition. The women on the programme now understand why proper nutrition is important, not only for good physical development, but also for cognitive development in the pre-schoolers in the crèches.

“We call it ‘Food For Thought’!”, Cathy volunteered. The supply of nutrients or the lack of nutrients is critical in brain development just as they are vital in all the other parts of the body.

Jabu has developed material for the training of ECD teachers to improve their own health and lives and then to inspire and equip them to train the children in their care. The Bible states a strong foundational principal for all who take their responsibility for children seriously: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it”, (Proverbs 22:6). “We see many children bringing junk food to school. Their parents see the brightly packaged ‘snacks’ as signs that they are making good and can afford the taste treats the advertising tells them they should be buying”, said Jabu, “but now, with training, the teachers are able to say with the authority which comes with being ‘qualified’ that there is a better way. Jabu’s training materials include recipes which map out meals through the day and a possible afternoon snack.

She has seen that it doesn’t work to say a blanket “No!” to all junk food. Instead, she says that giving options, along with the understanding of how crucial good eating is to good living, helps the children (and their parents) feel they are making healthy decisions for themselves.

Jabu, as a member of the same community where she sees poor eating habits all around her, is adamant that an understanding of the culture, the community, the thought processes must be taken into consideration and only then that the academic knowledge be applied to that overall scenario. She says that eating the cabbages and beans grown in more rural communities is seen as an indication of a lack of money and status. Moving to an urban environment means that people feel the pressure to abandon that ‘poor man’s diet’. Cathy added that, “If we can change the nutrition landscape in the ECD centres and show that it is radically benefitting the children, then we have a powerful tool to demonstrate to the wider community that, as actor Robert Urich said, “a healthy outside starts from the inside””. When measured against the demonstrable obesity, wasting and stunting seen before, the positive results of new eating habits, both child and parent can see the internal and external effects of what is put in their mouths.

The Nutrition Programme provides the crèches with nutritious meals every weekday during the school term. This has proved a great draw-card for daily attendance. In this way, good nutrition and good academic instruction are helping the children achieve their developmental milestones.

A basic menu has been developed which ensures good nutrition for the children. Breakfast is a high protein soy-based porridge supplied by one of Domino’s partners, Joint Aid Management (JAM). Lunch is delivered to crèches and consists of a beef bone and vegetable soup made with mixed legumes. The crèches choose if they serve the soup with bread, pap or rice. The programme equips the crèches to prepare their own meals in year 3.

A challenge arises when the children are not at school during school holidays. Cathy pointed out that this is where educating parents is critical to help their offspring to make better food choices when they are away from the provided meals at school.

Some of the crèches have cooking facilities and the joint aim of Domino’s ECD and Nutrition Programmes  is to nurture a partnership with them that builds capacity for them to ultimately provide this nutrition for themselves. Equipping the cooks with the understanding that protein-fortified foods bolster nutrition, which enhances the learners’ cognitive capabilities and strengthens their healthy physical growth, is imperative if the active learning is to take place. Jabu described the three phases of developing the nutrition programme in schools

  • Phase 1, schools receive pre-cooked soup;
  • Phase 2, they receive the makings of soup to cook themselves
  • Phase 3, crèches are sufficiently equipped to stand alone. Site visits track and report on the progress each crèche is making. The Nutrition team provides porridge in the morning and soup for lunch and is committed to influencing the way food is prepared at the centres.

When asked about tracking the impact of the Nutrition Programme on children’s progress towards school readiness, Cath pointed to Domino’s ECD team’s 150 Tool which has been developed by the Domino Foundation, in line with the Department of Social Development’s guidelines on ECD Centre management. The impact of any intervention has to measured, adjusted and evaluated against the expected outcomes as to its success, insights and failures. “Domino has created its own ECD 150 Tool (based off the DSD Guidelines for Minimum Crèche Requirements) with 150 key measurement indicators to assess, evaluate and track the progress within each ECD. The field workers and monitors visit each ECD centre on a weekly basis to assist with understanding, implementing techniques, skills and lessons learned. This change-management monitoring tool is at the core of the success of this enterprise and educational development programme, The measurement and evaluation of the impact of improved nutrition is a vital part of that.”

The ECD Programme not only mentors crèche staff in teaching methods but also gives training to the owners in good business practice. Cathy said that the programme had noted that crèches where its training as a whole, coupled with the input from the Nutrition Programme and Ishaq had been fully embraced, the owners now felt in a far stronger position to charge realistic fees which, in turn, meant the crèches could be better run. On the other hand, some crèches with little or no business training had been nervous to charge appropriately.

Both Jabu and Cathy were emphatic that the Domino/Ishaq partnership has a bright future with Jabu committed to doing yearly training on nutrition with the crèches and schools.

Jabu had the last word: “We know it’s easy to say that we are feeding for the future: the reality is that good nutrition in these early days of a child’s life spells a better future not only for that child but for South Africa as a whole. If we change an individual, we can change a whole community and then we can see the possibility of changing the nation.”

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