There are incredible efforts being made across all sectors of society to sustain our nation’s children and their access to nutritious meals. Traveling across the country, I have seen partnerships among government departments, school districts and community organizations that have made eating healthy “cool” in school again — more than 90 percent of the country’s schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) report they are now operating under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) improved nutrition standards.
As the summer approaches, however, it is no secret that millions of kids face a significantly higher chance of experiencing hunger when schools are out of session. Last year, 31 million students participated in the NSLP each day during the school year, and 21 million of those students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Only about 3.5 million of those children accessed meals through summer programs, revealing a substantial hunger gap in one of our most vulnerable populations. USDA’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is critical to closing that gap, and through SFSP, partners like NRPA can provide free nutritious meals to children in their communities.
Over the years, park and recreation departments have worked closely with states, community organizations and school districts to increase access and participation in SFSP. These direct collaborations have been innovative and without a doubt some of my favorite — from offering pool memberships to allowing kids additional access to library books, the site activities have grown in creativity and continue to encourage high average daily attendance.
For example, in Philadelphia, the Parks and Recreation Department’s summer feeding program operates “playstreets,” where small residential streets in areas that are not close to city recreation centers are blocked off for children to eat and play during the week. In Wisconsin last summer, the West Bend Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department organized a Dairy Carnival that got kids and their families out for cheese tasting, milk mustache photo ops and artificial cow milking, all while educating folks about nutritious eating and promoting the summer meals program.
The USDA partnering with park and recreation departments to increase the number of summer feeding sites is a natural fit. Not only does our collaboration bring more children to the table for healthy eating, it also provides a safe and familiar environment for kids and their families to engage in fun summer activities.
We still have much work to do to tackle the ongoing hunger issues affecting our youth today. Thank you to NRPA and its members for sponsoring sites, volunteering at local feeding sites and helping promote SFSP through innovative outreach. For more information or to get involved, click here.
Audrey Rowe is the Administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service at the USDA.