Teachers have complained about early childhood centres serving mouldy bread, ignoring halal rules, and providing cake three times a day, Auckland researcher Susan Bates says.
Ms Bates said she had been surveying early childhood teachers since 2013 and they often cited problems with food.
"The quality is terrible. There's a lot of junk food being given out. The worst thing for me I think is that menus are put up for parents and they look at it and think it's all fine, but that's not what's being actually served to the children," she said.
Ms Bates collated some of the comments in a recent report.
- "Food is often past its use by date and is served anyway. Even mouldy bread"
- "Lollies are given as incentive to tidy up or go to the toilet."
- "Children are given cake three times a day"
- "Water was restricted to save on nappy changes in the afternoon"
- "Halal rules not followed for an Arabic child, causing distress to a teacher who was afraid to say anything"
- "The menu being posted for parents bore little or no relation to the food that was being served"
Ms Bates said Health Ministry and Heart Foundation guidelines were not enough to ensure centres provided good food and government agencies should be monitoring what early childhood services were serving up.
"I have been into more than 40 centres and come up with a number of concerns around food and had a lot of stuff from other teachers. This is something that is a common complaint from other teachers so I think it is pretty widespread."
The allegations followed the publication of University of Auckland research which found most menus at early childhood centres did not meet Health Ministry nutrition guidelines, with half regularly including unhealthy food.
The study's lead author, Sarah Gerritsen*, said the menus were measured against the Health Ministry's food and nutrition guidelines, which suggested a focus on four main food groups: fruit and vegetables; grains; dairy products or alternatives; and protein in the form of legumes and seeds or meat and fish.
"If any food doesn't fall in the four food groups, it shouldn't really be listed in the menu," Ms Gerritsen said.
She said foods such as cake and other treats might be served at early childhood centres to celebrate children's birthdays, but they should not feature as a regular food item on a menu.
The chief executive of the Early Childhood Council, Peter Reynolds said the University of Auckland research indicated some improvements might be needed, but there was no need for tighter policing.
He said advice on what was healthy for children changed from year to year and early childhood services did their best to keep up.
Mr Reynolds said the Auckland study was based on menus collected in 2014, and the situation would have improved since then.
"Recently there was also some research that came out that pointed to the fact that young pre-school children are on average losing weight compared with where they were a few years ago. Now that would tend to indicate that actually we're doing some things that are pretty good."
The Education Minister, Nikki Kaye said it was important for the education sector to encourage healthy lifestyles and an Education Review Office report indicated most early childhood centres were doing a good job.
"A national report based on a sample of early learning services visited by ERO in 2016 showed that nine out of ten services were doing well or very well at promoting positive attitudes to food, nutrition and physical activity," she said.
The Education Ministry's deputy secretary Sector Enablement and Support, Katrina Casey, said licensing criteria for early childhood services required that food served must meet children's nutritional needs.
"If food is provided by the service, it must be of sufficient variety, quantity and quality to meet these needs. Where food is provided by parents, the service must encourage and promote healthy eating guidelines," Ms Casey said.
* Sarah Gerritsen is no relation to RNZ education correspondent John Gerritsen