Childcare food program bans junk, takes aim at anemia

Nunavik kids get head start on good eats


KUUJJUAQ – When kids at Kuujjuaq's Iqitauvik childcare centre get thirsty, they drink water and when they're hungry, they eat either country foods or nutritious store-bought foods.

Good eating habits are now encouraged at every childcare centre in Nunavik, thanks to a nutrition program run by the Kativik Regional Government's employment, training, income support and childcare department.

After the program started in 2003, every childcare centre in Nunavik developed its own nutrition policy, the department's director, Margaret Gauvin, told councillors at last month's KRG meeting in Kuujjuaq.

In Nunavik, there are 16 government-subsidized childcare centres serving about 800 children. A ban on junk food is at the heart of their nutrition policy.

As well, sweet fruit juice isn't served unless it's on the menu. Usually, only milk and water are available at meals. There are no baby bottles or sippy cups filled with juice or milk.

"When the children are thirsty, they drink water," Gauvin said.

The childcare department decided to embrace and encourage good eating habits as a way of reducing Nunavik's high levels of iron deficiency anemia among children.

For every 10 children in Nunavik, at least two or three suffer from iron-deficiency anemia, compared with a rate of about one in 100 for ­Canada.

"It's one of the biggest problems we have," Gauvin told councillors.

Iron deficiency results in fewer red blood cells, because iron is necessary for making the cells that transport oxygen throughout the body.

Iron deficiency anemia may cause permanent problems if it affects children during the first years of life, leading to developmental delays, behavioral disturbances, failure to thrive and increased infections.

Poor diet plays a big role in the development of anemia. Anemia is often linked to a lack of vitamins A,C and D.

The people who run the childcare nutrition program wanted to see if high rates of anemia in children could be corrected by improving their diet, at least among those children who attend Nunavik's childcare centres, Gauvin said.

To this end, the program trains the cooks who work in the childcare centres, which includes training sessions at Inukjuak's Pigiursavik vocational centre.

The training includes instruction on how to cook and serve country food, how to choose good pieces of meat and fish, how to order food, as well as how much food to prepare and how to make food that children like to eat.

"Some were very worried that the [country] foods would be contaminated," Gauvin said.

But research shows the benefits of a traditional Inuit diet far outweigh any negative impacts from contaminants.

The feedback from parents and kids is that they like eating country foods, Gauvin said.

The behaviour of their children has improved, parents say, and their kids eat better at home. The children do not miss juice, pop and junk food and have better teeth, Gauvin said.

"Healthy teeth are an indicator of a healthy child," Gauvin told the councillors.

Research now underway will show whether the diet has a long-term impact on overall health and development, she said.

The nutrition program also plans to encourage cooking with country foods and nutritious store-bought foods with the publication of a recipe book for childcare centres and families.

The childcare section is also looking at ways of organizing supplies of seasonal country foods so that childcare centres have a continual supply of country foods.

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