Happy National Summer Learning Day! Led by the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), National Summer Learning Day is an advocacy day aimed at elevating the importance of keeping all kids learning, safe and healthy during the summer. Today, the country will unite in advocacy efforts and celebrations hosted by hundreds of partner organizations to promote awareness around combatting summer learning loss and the methods by which to successfully incorporate summer learning opportunities into programming available for children in communities nationwide. Park and recreation agencies across the country serve as critical partners in their community’s efforts to promote children’s health and learning throughout the summer months.
As one of the largest providers of the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), parks and recreation agencies are at the forefront of promoting children’s health over the summer by serving as SFSP sponsors or sites. SFSP offers free nutritious meals and snacks over the summer to children who may otherwise go hungry due to a loss of access to the free or reduced-price meals available to them during the school year. Unfortunately, there still remains a significant gap in how many children are served summer meals that typically have access to free school meals.
According to the Summer Nutrition Programs Report released by the Food Research & Action Center, only one in seven children who ate a free or reduced-price school lunch during the 2016-2017 school year was reached by the Summer Nutrition Programs in July 2017. While more extensive research is needed, potential barriers to accessing summer meals may include a lack of awareness regarding the availability of these programs, changes in SFSP site locations from year to year, lack of transportation to SFSP sites, and insufficient public and private funding for summer enrichment programming that can greatly enhance SFSP sites and ensure high participation throughout the summer.
Offering enrichment activities as part of a summer meal program is a critical strategy to closing the gap between the number of children who receive free or reduced- price meals during the school year compared to the number of children who participate in summer meal programs. In addition to reducing the impact of summer hunger, summer meal sites that offer enrichment activities also mitigate the effects of summer learning loss, particularly for low-income children who may lose two to three more months of math and reading achievement compared to their more affluent peers.
Across the country, NRPA is proud to support 31 park and recreation agencies through funding from the Walmart Foundation to provide the 2018 Healthy Out-of-School Time Program Grants. These agencies are experiencing significant success in pairing their summer meals programs with enrichment and educational activities, including:
- Bristol Parks and Recreation Department (CT) hosts a summer meal site at the Bristol Public Library which becomes an “Intellectual Playground” for children, particularly during the summer. In addition to summer meals, the Intellectual Playground offers a variety of enrichment activities before and after the meal, including performances from a Food Play magician, the Talking Hands Theatre Company, Grammy Award-winning musician Les Julian, and Pete the Cat. Each of these performances promotes healthy eating and physical activity.
- The City of Westminster (CO) engages a gardener to work with three out-of-school time community garden sites. Children in the program take part in watering the plants, learning how plants grow, and creating signage for the plants.
- The City of Eureka (CA) will soon host a traveling library that will visit five meal sites each week. The traveling library will include a visually appealing nutrition education shelf and staff will be on-site for cooking activities and demonstrations, particularly around preparing healthy foods for individuals with limited access to cooking resources such as stoves and ovens.
In addition to offering summer meals and enrichment activities, park and recreation agencies are making year-round contributions to children’s health and wellness by taking the pledge to Commit to Health. Commit to Health is a national movement to create healthier out-of-school time (OST) programs through the implementation of the evidence-based Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards at their sites.
Join us in celebrating National Summer Learning Day and share your story with us!
This blog post was originally published on NRPA’s Open Space blog.
Megan Phillippi is with NRPA’s Government Affairs Department.