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'Munch crunch' hits back in fight against obesity

Health and well-being is one area of Curriculum for Excellence that no one in education can ignore, especially as Scotland has the second- highest level of obesity in the world.

But not all school staff are comfortable working in this area - they don't all know the healthy-eating messages themselves and lack confidence in engaging parents in it.

So NHS Ayrshire and Arran's maternal and child nutrition team runs training courses for early years workers, teachers and community workers in how to deliver nutrition and food skills for children and their families in three Ayrshire local authorities.

The health region has been taking part in a national child surveillance scheme which has measured and weighed children in P1 for the past two years. The latest figures showed 7 per cent of them were obese, and 17 per cent overweight or obese; that marks a slight improvement from the year before, when 20 per cent were obese or overweight.

Team leader Fiona Smith is a public health dietitian. The message she tries to convey is that what you eat can change how you feel.

CfE has opened up the field for this kind of work, she believes. She was invited recently to lecture second-year PGDE students at the University of the West of Scotland.

But her main target group is people who work with families who may live in difficult circumstances. They have to find ways to encourage them to experiment, because many families in poverty are reluctant to buy new foods - if their children won't eat them, they can't afford an alternative.

Those who attend her team's "munch crunch" training sessions need to gain confidence and practical skills in delivering the key messages.

On the day The TESS attended, four of the participants worked in pre-five establishments and two in the North West Youth Project, in Onthank, near Kilmarnock, catering for five- to 25-year-olds.

The morning was for theory and information; the afternoon for practical cookery - soups, pizzas, stews, smoothies - delivered by Gillian Dick, a self-taught chef who used to cook lobster thermidor professionally but now concentrates on basic, cheap, nutritious recipes.

It's not just those who come from poor backgrounds who need to be educated in how to make healthy food, she says. She has taken sessions where university-educated participants looked at parsnips and turnips she gave out and returned them, saying they had no idea how to peel them. "People have forgotten how to cook from scratch," she says.

A quiz on healthy eating shows that most people on the course know the basic messages, but still need some reinforced. If children are given raisins as a snack (preferably along with breadsticks or a pancake), nurseries should brush their teeth half-an-hour later - not straight away - as the dried fruit is sticky and can cause tooth decay.

Fiona Smith turns out to be less draconian than some of the nurseries, when it comes to the kind of bread she would serve children. Jennifer McBurnie, a senior early years worker at Onthank Nursery, would serve only wholemeal bread to her charges; Ms Smith says children should have a variety of food - so feel free to give them paninis or a naan.

Then there's a game that can be replicated in sessions for parents - trying to place different foods or drinks on the Food Standards Agency's "eat well plate" - divided into sections for fruit and vegetables; bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods; milk and dairy; foods high in fat andor sugar; and meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein. Should a tin of sweetcorn go on the section for vegetables or sugar? Does the Pot Noodle come under breads, cereals and potatoes? And should the tin of corned beef come under fat or beef?

The rule of thumb, says Ms Smith, is: "Look at the label - what does it mainly consist of?"

She has useful tips: beware cartons labelled "juice drink" because they could contain as little as three teaspoonfuls of fruit juice in 250mls, diluted with water and sweetened - look instead for those labelled "fruit juice". Don't give artificial sweeteners to under-threes; and baked beans can count as one of your five-a-day fruit and vegetables.

Alanna Colvin, a youth worker on the Onthank estate, confesses that she used to drink 14 high-energy drinks a day until her GP warned her that if she continued, she would become diabetic; Lynnette Poag of Shortlees Nursery in Kilmarnock explains that her family has a history of high cholesterol and she has had to change her eating habits accordingly. They share their concerns about how to find the right way to speak to parents about a child's diet.

Lynnette talks about a parent who arrived with a "huge" chocolate bar for her child. "She'll never eat all that," said Lynnette to the mother, hoping to discourage her from passing it to her daughter. "Oh yes, she will," said the mother, unperturbed.

As part of a road-safety exercise for families, her nursery is going to incorporate a supermarket trip for parents, to help them make the right shopping choices.

Evelyn Murdoch, an early years worker at Bellsbank Nursery, in Dalmellington, talks about the consternation caused when an eight-month- old baby was sick and the nursery workers thought she was bringing up blood - it turned out to be red cola.

Ms Smith recounts tales of parents liquidising McDonald's Happy Meals when moving children on to solids. And then there are the children who have to go to hospital to be "knocked out" under anaesthetic to have rotten first teeth extracted.

Benefit cuts worry Ms Smith, but she believes her team's work will be more vital than ever to support families who need to eat well on low incomes: "We will never compete with offers of half-a-dozen pies for 99p, but a pot of soup is very inexpensive and could potentially feed a whole family with a loaf of bread for not very much."

It should, she says, be possible to combat conditions such as childhood anaemia, caused by lack of iron, which can affect brain development and attainment, and ensure that children are eating the calcium they need for healthy bones and teeth.

Her team is delivering a valuable service, she believes: building the capacity of education and community workers to deliver a consistent message and build parents' confidence that they are doing the right thing for their children. Its funding, from the Scottish Government, runs out in five months' time, however, and its future is uncertain.

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