Working Paper

A Market in Mealtimes: Social and Economic Factors Associated with Meal Provision in Early Care and Education (ECE) Services

Published: 2020

Non-technical Summary:

Across developed economies attendance at an early care and education program is now almost universal. In this study, we asked whether early childhood education and care services are realising their potential to support child nutrition, particularly for those living in communities at high risk of food insecurity. We utilised public administrative data (20182020) to examine associations between meal provision in Early Care and Education services, service fee structure, community-level socioeconomic disadvantage, market competition and child development outcomes (derived from the Australian Early Development Census). The study included administrative data from Early Care and Education services located, across remote, regional and metropolitan locations in Queensland, Australia.
We found that services in the most disadvantaged areas were less likely to provide food and more likely to have lower fees. Higher market competition, occurring in metropolitan areas, was associated with increased likelihood of meal provision in disadvantaged communities, yet in these disadvantaged communities, parent ability to pay constrains fees. This raises important questions about decisions that offset cost. Is food quality poorer? Is the general quality of service provision affected?

There was little association between meal provision and rates of children’s developmental vulnerability in the community, however, provision of breakfast was associated with higher levels of developmental problems suggesting that breakfast provision is a response to disadvantage in the small number of services where breakfast is provided.
We conclude that the competitive market works contrary to the potential for Early Care and Education services to promote public health and support child nutrition. Children living in disadvantaged communities, where food insecurity is inevitably higher, are least likely to have meals provided by their service. Whilst market competition increases the likelihood of meal provision in disadvantaged communities, investigation of food quality in this context is required. Against a background of pressure to constrain fees in communities under economic stress, a question then arises about how budgets are managed. The findings indicate the need for systemic change to enable high quality food provision in Early Care and Education services located in communities at high risk of food insecurity.


Centre Member

Bonnie Searle
Candice Oakes

Centre Friend

Holly A. Harris

Centre Member

Karen Thorpe
Nicole LakemanOlivia Van Halen

Centre Member

Sally Staton