A Different Kind of Picnic In the Park
Summer has officially arrived! Children are out of school; park and recreation agencies are busily finalizing camp and class rosters. As anyone who has stepped foot in a recreation center or onto a park during the summer months knows – summer equals kids in parks. Summer park and recreation programs provide children an opportunity to partake in experiences they may not have during the school year. Although unfortunate (and worthy of an entirely different blog post) that activities such as physical education and earth sciences have been stripped from many school programs, at least park and recreation agencies are there to step in and provide children with these and other experiences during the summer months. My six year old daughter just completed a three-day nature camp; the week prior she took an art workshop – both at our local park. Both are areas of interest to her and her parents, so we enrolled her in these “important-to-us” programs.
But, what about the kids who don’t have the same resources mine do? What about programs that may not be “important-to-us,” but critical to health? What about the millions, 19.5 million to be specific, of children who fall within the definition of low-income? Do these kids have access to the same summer experiences that my kids do? I think the answer is yes-maybe.
Park and recreation agencies universally offer fee waivers and reductions for low-income children to participate in summer programs. This is the yes part of my response. However, many parents and caregivers aren’t aware of the assistance available to allow their children to participate in these summer programs. And if they are aware, their kids might not be able to get to the park without the school busses and crossing guards in place during the school year. If they do get there, does the park and recreation agency have the resources necessary to meet the need? This is the maybe part of my response.
To illustrate my point and to get at the heart of this post; 19.5 million children receive free or reduced-priced lunches at school each year. However, during the summer months fewer than 3 million children partake in free summer lunch. This is a gap of more than 16 million kids who can receive a free healthy lunch each day school is out, but don’t. Why is this? NRPA believes the answer to this gap is awareness of families, access by children, and resources at parks.
Over the last three years, NRPA has awarded grants to 44 communities through its Serving Communities program. Funded by the Walmart Foundation, and being joined by the Kansas Health Foundation in 2012, these grants provide park and recreation agencies with resources to expand their community outreach, hire staff for larger and additional feeding sites, purchase refrigerated vans to transport meals, and bring on school busses (and drivers) to help get kids to parks. These grants have targeted awareness, access, and resources – resulting in 16 million meals being served to 180,000 children thus far. This is from the handful of communities receiving Serving Communities grants. Recognizing there are roughly 12,000 park and recreation agencies in the United States and that 84 percent of them provide summer lunches (56% also provide afterschool meals) and the real impact is staggering. Park and recreation agencies serve 560,000,000 meals to children each year.
But, there are still more than 16 million children who could be participating in summer lunch programs at parks, but aren’t. If these kids aren’t in parks – where are they and what are they doing?
Working where I do, I understand the critical role park and recreation agencies have in improving individual and community quality of life. Being a parent, I see the real importance of a child’s time spent in an enriching and healthy environment. With expanded support from the Walmart Foundation and Kansas Health Foundation, I’m proud to be a part of NRPA’s effort to provide park and recreation agencies with the tools to help them bring more at-risk kids into parks; not only each summer, but every day.
Written by: Jimmy O’Connor, NRPA Senior Manager of Corporate Grants, Father of three
Tell us, how are you serving your community during the summer months to reach at-risk populations? How do you raise awareness, increase access and provide resources? Do you have success stories to share? We want to hear from you!