The Child Nutrition and Well-being Program originated in 1996 as the Nutrition Project Awareness Project for Young Mothers and babies, with a six-month Commonwealth Health grant to teach young mothers how to cook nutritious meals for their children. At the time NPYWC members and Directors saw this as a solution to the high number of children failing to thrive – commonly called ‘skinny kids’ – and the ‘welfare’ intervention that often resulted in their removal to predominantly non-Aboriginal foster care in major centres far from NPY communities.  

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Two staff were employed using the malparara model: a senior Yarnangu woman with many years’ experience in Aboriginal health services, and a non-Aboriginal woman with a nursing background. They developed a workshop format utilising a combination of health promotion and education strategies aimed at providing young mothers with the skills and knowledge to ensure optimum nutrition for their babies and young children.

The program continued to receive modest recurrent funding, supplemented by philanthropic and government special interest grants. Using an action research framework, its work developed to include individual family support for children at risk, monitoring of community stores, resource production and the Kungka Career Conference.

In 2005 NPYWC received additional funding for the Program under a FaHCSIA Invest to Grow grant allocation. This allowed it to expand and to offer a more equitable service throughout the member communities. These days the Program runs on a broader public health model. It seeks to address the wider social issues that affect child well-being and failure to thrive, such as domestic and family violence and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) as well as combining prevention and intervention strategies to offer practical help to clients.

The Child Nutrition Program records show that more than 50% of current clients are children living with domestic violence; 39% are affected by serious substance misuse by one or more parent; and of these, 17% are confirmed to have had pre-natal exposure to high levels of alcohol and suspected FASD; and 20% of clients have one or more parent with a mental illness. Just under half – 46% – are involved with the statutory child protection system. WA, SA and the NT each has its own child protection legislation, and Child Nutrition staff must work with all three, at times with more than one in relation to a single client. This makes even more complex the task of assisting clients across the large NPY region.

There are numerous causal contributors to the nutrition and well-being problems affecting children in the NPY region. These include: parents’ low educational attainment and therefore limited understanding of nutritional requirements, food labelling and household budgeting; and the often limited choices of reasonably-priced healthy food in remote stores, coupled with an increasing reliance on take-away or other convenience food with high fat, salt and or sugar content and little nutritional benefit.