Summer learning programs are fighting obesity by encouraging children to eat healthy and be more active, but they face challenges, including lack of funding, space and staff training, according to experts from summer food programs offered by the YMCA, Afterschool Alliance and Healthy Kids Out of School.
Survey data from 200 summer learning programs found 86% served a breakfast, lunch, supper or snack to children, while 63% participated in the USDA Summer Food Service Program that subsidizes $3.41 for each lunch or supper served, Alexis Steines of the Afterschool Alliance said during a recent webinar.
Jennifer Hofman of the YMCA of the USA said out-of-school programs serve 8 million children and are great opportunities to engage them about healthy lifestyles. “You have time with children that is not, necessarily, academically focused, and you can use this time to talk about it,” Hofman said during the webinar.
Summer and after-school programs strive to meet National Afterschool Association standards for healthy eating and physical activity. HEPA dietary standards include offering a fruit or vegetable daily, providing healthy beverages including water, avoiding fried foods and encouraging children to eat nutrient-dense foods. HEPA activity standards include 60 minutes of activity for a full-day program, play that strengthens bone and muscle, and outdoor activity when possible.
Hofman said 77% of YMCA programs have committed to implementing the standards but also face barriers, such as budget constraints; lack of refrigeration, storage and preparation space; vendors that offer unhealthy foods; and, third-parties who make unhealthy decisions for children. Problems meeting physical activity goals include lack of indoor space, outdoor spaces that are not accessible to Y programs, bad weather for outdoor play and safety issues.
Wendy Broderick of the YMCA of Columbia, S.C., said the Y worked with the University of South Carolina to do onsite program evaluations and identify activities that helped meet HEPA standards. A strategy adopted in 2012 called for better staff training and established clear program expectations.
“We thought healthy eating would be hard to do, due to budget constraints,” Broderick said. “We thought physical activity would be easy. [But] we weren’t doing physical activity as well as we thought we were. Physical activity was actually the hard nut to crack.”
Broderick said elimination games were cut from the program to ensure all children got a chance to be physically active. Program goals were distributed to parents, and checklists and self-evaluations were created for program leaders.
“Detailed schedules are critical to meeting our HEPA goals,” Broderick said, and to that end the initiative established calendars that set activity times and locations, along with necessary equipment.
Data from motion sensors used to track and classify physical activity showed increased activity at four Y test sites.
To help meet HEPA dietary standards the program partnered with local grocers to establish a network of stores where Y programs could buy foods that complied with the guidelines. “Now only healthy items listed on the forms can be purchased,” Broderick said, and added grocers were willing to sell to the YMCA at cost.
“All we had to do is ask,” she said. “They were thrilled to work with the Y to improve healthy eating.”
YMCA programs also established a healthy lunchbox challenge to encourage children to bring fresh fruits and vegetables and water from home. Programs went from serving desserts two days each week and salty snacks three days per week to serving fruits and vegetables each day.
Registered dietitian Molly Newman of Healthy Kids Out of School said the group’s goal is to unite programs around nutrition and physical education principals that promote healthy habits. The group is a coalition of 11 programs, including those of short duration, such as Pop Warner, and extra-curricular programs such as Boy Scouts and 4H.
In 2011 the groups agreed to three guiding principals: Drink Right, Move More and Snack Smart, all aligning with HEPA goals. Newman said to support leaders in making program changes, the Healthy Kids Hub Website offers 200 educational materials, discounted products and special offers for snacks, activities and parent engagement.
All offers are vetted so they align with the three guiding principals and the site “takes the Google search out of looking for resources on your own,” Newman said.