Putting Children at the Table in the Nutrition Discussion

The views of young people and mothers to shape global nutrition policies.

In the first study of its kind to span six continents, Western Sydney University researchers have found adolescents had a limited understanding of the nutritional value of the foods they commonly encounter.

Many adolescents who took part in the study believed that nutritious foods were either not sold near their home, or were too expensive. Similarly, mothers of infants and young children under two years, overwhelmingly reported that cost was the main barrier to feeding their children more healthily during the first two years of life. "

“When unhealthy foods are the only choices around, there is no choice,” says Dr Catharine Fleming, from the School of Health Sciences.

Led by Professor Amanda Third from Western’s Institute for Culture and Society, a team of social and cultural research, nutrition, and midwifery experts, developed workshops delivered by trained facilitators who consulted with 464 adolescents (age range 13-18) and 396 mothers across 18 low and middle income countries, as well as Australia and the US, about their eating patterns. Participants in the five-hour session completed surveys and short-answer questions both individually and in groups. However, knowing that it can be hard for children as well as adults to speak out in such activities, the team also invited them to take part in creative interactive exercises, such as brainstorming and drawing.

Asking adolescents directly for their input on healthy eating was considered to be a novel research approach. Fleming, along with Professor Virginia Schmied, from the School of Nursing and Midwifery, worked with global leaders in public health nutrition to deliver the workshop content to ensure the views of all participants were captured across a variety of socioeconomic and geographical areas.

The team found that adolescents do want to improve their diets and to work with community leaders to implement change. “Solutions need to involve adolescents — many nutrition policies are made without young people having a seat at the table,” says Fleming.

The team’s findings were published in UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2019 report and will inform global policy and programming. Two in-depth companion reports, focusing on the insights of adolescents and mothers respectively, will be released later in 2020.

Need to know

  • Western Sydney University researchers helped design the methodology for the State of the World’s Children 2019 report.
  • They talked to adolescents and mothers across 18 countries.
  • They found that healthy eating solutions need to include input from adolescents.

Meet the Academic | Doctor Catharine Fleming

Dr Fleming has a PhD in paediatric nutrition and dietetics and over 12 years’ experience in paediatric nutrition relating to infant and young child feeding, paediatric food allergy and childhood obesity. In particular, she has expertise in metabolic disorders in specialised paediatric populations such as childhood cancer survivors. Dr Fleming has worked internationally with a lead paediatric gastroenterology team at Great Ormond Street hospital London in the management of paediatric food allergies, specifically around the feeding difficulties of children aged 0- 12 years with Food Protein Induced Gastrointestinal Allergies. Dr Fleming continued to build her expertise in child nutrition while working in a clinical capacity and completing her PhD at Sydney children’s in paediatric oncology. During this time, I investigated the need for nutritional support and intervention after childhood cancer treatment to focus on the prevention of metabolic late effects in child hood cancer survivors. Specifically, the development and project management of an innovative parent and child-targeted e-Health program ‘ENeRgy-KIDS’ to address diet and feeding behaviours after childhood cancer treatment, focusing on healthy survivorship and disease prevention.

Meet the Academic | Associate Professor Amanda Third

Associate Professor Amanda Third is Principal Research Fellow in Digital Social and Cultural Research in the Institute for Culture and Society. Her research focuses on the socio-cultural dimensions of young people's technology use, with particular emphases on children's rights in the digital age, the intergenerational
dynamics shaping technology practice, and vulnerable young people's technological engagements. She has conducted several large externally funded projects with industry organisations (Google Australia, Google UK, Starlight Children's Foundation, Telstra Foundation, Foundation for Young Australians) focusing on young people's everyday use of online and networked technologies and the potential for new technologies to support young people's wellbeing.

In 2010, Associate Professor Third was appointed to lead Research Program 2: 'Connected and Creative', of the Young and Well Cooperative Research
. The Young and Well CRC unites young people with researchers, practitioners, innovators and policy-makers from over 75 partner organisations across the not-for-profit, academic, government and corporate sectors to explore the role of technology in young people's lives, and how technology can be used to improve the mental health and wellbeing of young people aged 12 to 25. The research program Associate Professor Third leads investigates how to better connect vulnerable young people with their communities by enhancing and leveraging their technology practices and their creative engagements.

She is also Chief Investigator on an Australian Research Council Industry Linkage project entitled 'Young People, Technology and Wellbeing Research Facility' that examines cross-sector knowledge brokering practices. She is a founding member of the Australian-based Technology and Wellbeing Cross-Sector Roundtable; a member of the international Digitally Connected Network; and an Expert Advisor to Global Kids Online, an initiative of UNICEF and the London School of Economics.

Meet the Academic | Professor Virginia Schmied

Virginia Schmied is Professor in the School of Nursing and Midwifery and the Family and Community Health (FaCH) research group. She is a registered midwife and a registered nurse with experience extends across clinical practice, education, research and consultancy. Professor Schmied has worked in other tertiary institutions and as a senior manager in the public sector. She holds a Visiting Professorship at University of Central Lancashire (UK) and an Adjunct Professorship at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Professor Schmied is a leading Australian researcher in midwifery and child and family health. Her program of scholarship, teaching and research is grounded in social science theory and methods and focuses on transition to motherhood, perinatal mental health, breastfeeding and infant feeding decisions, postnatal care, effective models to support vulnerable families, family centered care in NICU, strengthening the universal health services for families and children and the role of the child and family health nurse.

She has published over 80 refereed journal articles, book chapters and published reports and regularly presents (including as a key note speaker) at national and international conferences. She is particularly skilled in building collaborative teams and has used opportunities for seed funding to grow teams/networks, to publish findings and reports and then to apply for competitive funding. 


This research was funded by UNICEF New York.

© SDI Productions/iStock/Getty © Kelly Sikkema/unsplash
Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.