By Kellie May.
In cities across the country, parks and recreation departments are often the go-to resource for quality programs and activities that help residents get active and enjoy an improved quality of life. Parks and recreation departments play a critical role in promoting health and wellness, especially among children and young people. This is particularly evident in the programs they provide to reach and engage children when they are not in school.
One of the most critical times of the year to keep children healthy is during the summer, when many children may not have access to healthy food and may not be as physically active as they are during the school year. Providing a nutritious meal to hungry kids is an important way to ensure that they are able to reach their full potential both in and out of school.
Over 21 million low-income children receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year to help them meet their daily nutrition needs – but only three million of these children are getting these meals during the summer, making the work that local parks and recreation agencies do to fill the gap during out-of-school times that much more critical.
The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), a federally funded, state administered program, enables parks and recreation departments and other entities the ability to provide free, healthy meals to children and teens in low-income communities. Parks and recreation departments often maximize their programs by pairing nutrition education with physical activities.
Serving meals at parks and recreation sites that provide physical and enrichment activities is a comprehensive approach to improving a child’s health. This approach also contributes to a community’s financial bottom line and provides a safe space for kids to play while getting a nutritious, free meal. Some of the benefits of summer meal programs include:
Kids Get Much More than a Meal
The outdoor activities and educational enrichment programs provided by parks and recreation departments can help improve a child’s physical health and contribute to his or her intellectual, emotional and social well-being.
The Saint Paul, Minn., Parks and Recreation Department provides enrichment programming at many of its meal sites. Activities such as art, cooking, science, theatre, special-themed event days, and indoor and outdoor games and sports are offered. The meals are served before and after the summer programming, and are a part of their afterschool programs during the school year.
This gives young people plenty of time to eat, socialize, and participate in a variety of activities. Parents who seek free or low-cost quality programming recognize the value of what is offered and consistently send their children to these programs. Many youth go to the sites because of the relationships they develop with the staff as well as the fun and varied programming.
The Local Economy Gets a Boost
When cities participate in federally funded meal programs such as the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and SFSP, the revenue provided by these programs can help boost the local economy. In addition, parks and recreation departments that offer afterschool programming and participate in the CACFP can move straight into serving summer meals by also participating in SFSP. This diminishes the amount of administrative paperwork required to operate both meal programs – and, if a site is providing programming through the afterschool meal program, they can easily transition to providing that same programming during the summer.
In 2014, the Montgomery County, Md., Department of Parks reached over 8,000 young people in five of their largest youth-serving programs. They have seen success in establishing a new summer program, Food, Fun and Fitness, which pairs drop-in physical and artistic activity with free meals for children under 18. This program has not only benefitted the children in the area but has resulted in a positive economic outcome for the community.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 20,000 kids under 18 live in poverty in Montgomery County. During the summer of 2014, the department of parks was able to serve 75,728 snacks and meals to these children. The county estimates that meals and snacks served through USDA meal programs like Food, Fun and Fitness have a yearly positive economic impact of over $600 per child for families that take full advantage of such opportunities.
A Safe Environment for Kids
Parks serve as public spaces for recreation and civic engagement, and can help improve quality of life in cities. When parks and recreation agencies provide summer meal programs for children, they are also providing parents with peace of mind; parents can rest assured knowing that their child is in a supervised and safe environment, often in their own neighborhood.
In Philadelphia, a city that serves nearly one million meals each summer, the Parks and Recreation Department operates “playstreets” in conjunction with their meal program. Playstreets are small, residential streets that are blocked to traffic during weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. These temporary neighborhood “parks” provide children a safe place that is close to home where they can play and enjoy a healthy meal during the summer.
To find a summer meal program site near you, call the National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-HUNGRY.
Kellie May is a Senior Program Manager at the National Recreation and Parks Association. To learn more about the important role of parks and recreation in helping cities provide healthy meals during out-of-school times, contact Kellie.