Today, more than half of Oklahoma children spend time in care outside the home while their parents or guardians are at work. That means day care providers play an important role in the nutritional quality of food being served to thousands of Oklahoma children.
A researcher in the College of Allied Health at the OU Health Sciences Center studies the quality of food served in Oklahoma’s child care homes and develops interventions for their improvement.
Recently, she received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine the quality of the food served in a specific type of day care: the Family Child Care Home. FCCHs, like child care centers, are licensed by the state, but they operate out of private homes and provide care for a smaller number of children, no more than 12.
“Child nutrition is so important for proper growth and development,” said Susan B. Sisson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the College of Allied Health. “If a child is overweight or obese by the time they’re in kindergarten, they have a much higher likelihood of being overweight in middle school, high school and as adults. With that comes the risk for health complications. Prevention of diseases related to obesity is a much better strategy.”
Sisson previously studied the nutrition of food served in child care centers vs. what children are eating at home, and the results were encouraging: Overall, children are eating more nutritious food while in a child care center. But much less research has been done on the food served at FCCHs.
Most child care centers in Oklahoma participate in the Child and Adult Food Care Program, the federal program that provides reimbursement if centers meet nutritional requirements. However, FCCHs are less likely to participate in the federal reimbursement program and, if they do, have less administrative capacity to meet the requirements.
In addition, the federal reimbursement program is issuing new guidelines, effective October 2017, that may make participation even more difficult for FCCHs. In Oklahoma, 17,000 children attend FCCHs. In addition, 88 percent of FCCHs serve children from low-income families, a population that faces health disparities.
“We have wonderful FCCHs in Oklahoma, but not much study has been done on the nutrition of the food they serve and what type of help they need to meet the best practices of nutrition,” Sisson said. “We plan to develop an intervention designed to help them overcome barriers and improve the quality of their meals and meal environment.”
Beyond providing nutritious snacks and meals, child care providers can model the importance of eating well, Sisson said. Rather than encouraging children to clean their plates, child care providers can let children respond to their own feelings of being full; children don’t typically overeat, she said.
Child care providers also can sit down and eat the same food they are serving children, rather than eating something different, which the children may notice. They can talk about the foods they’re serving and how they benefit children’s bodies.
“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that what caregivers talk about, the kids will talk about at home,” Sisson said. “If a child comes home talking about water being healthier to drink than soda, a parent is more likely to buy water for the family. There is a ‘trickle-up’ effect in that kids regurgitate what they are doing and learning at school.”
Sisson’s work is an important part of the research mission of the OU Health Science Center: to improve the lives of people in Oklahoma and beyond.
“By researching ways to improve children’s nutrition, Dr. Sisson plays a crucial role in the prevention of diseases associated with obesity,” said James Tomasek, Ph.D., vice president for research at the OU Health Sciences Center. “Her latest grant demonstrates that federal funding agencies understand the importance of her research.”