Food insecurity and social isolation know no boundaries and often go hand in hand. Even in a picturesque city like Burlington, Vermont — with its rich culture and breathtaking views of Lake Champlain, tucked between the Adirondack Mountains of New York and the Green Mountains of Vermont — food insecurity and social isolation are ongoing challenges.
This is especially true for many school-aged children and older adults living in the city’s Old North End — Burlington’s oldest and most densely populated and diverse neighborhood. But for the past several years, Burlington Department of Parks, Recreation and Waterfront (BPRW) has been collaborating with organizations like the Burlington School Food Project, Burlington Housing Authority and Age Well VT to change this narrative and provide healthy meals to school-aged children and older adults five days per week, year-round. BPRW is also providing these two generations with opportunities to connect and engage in mutually beneficial activities.
This summer, BPRW has been able to further expand their recreation and nutrition drop-in programs, thanks to NRPA’s Increasing Access to Healthy Foods grant opportunity, funded by the Walmart Foundation. With this funding, the city has been able to expand the summer meal program in three of Burlington’s subsidized family developments — Franklin Square, Riverside and South Meadows — and open a meal site at the Andy A DOG Skatepark and a dinner site at Roosevelt Park. The city was also able to increase community awareness and partnerships to effectively operate the meal programs, increase and diversify the associated recreational activities and expand their intergenerational activities.
Because most of the city’s meal programs are located directly in the housing developments, children who would otherwise not have access to a healthy meal during the summer months are able to wake up and walk over to their community room at 11 a.m. to engage in physical activity, nutrition education or arts and crafts, enjoy a healthy and nutritious meal at noon, and continue to socialize with their peers until 2 p.m. For some of the summer meal program staff, this is the best part of their day.
“I look forward to coming here, even if it’s for a few hours,” said one BPRW staff member.
There is a sense of community and a level of comfort and trust among the staff and participants. Children affectionately run to hug staff as they walk with ear-to-ear smiles on their faces, and parents stand at their doors waving to their children as they walk or bike over to the community room.
In addition to being able to enjoy a healthy meal and socialize with their peers, the children are also able to connect with older adults attending the city’s Center of Recreation and Education (CORE) Champlain Senior Center at least once per week. Murals and other art by children and older adults line the halls. Just outside the building in the adjacent park, there was a group of older adults and children participating in a tie-dye activity, chattering away about what colors they want on their t-shirts and what words or phrases best describe them and why.
This is just one of the many intergenerational activities BRPW has been able to offer to improve the lives of both older adults and children. For the past several weeks, both generations have been participating in activities such as berry-picking at Mazza’s Berry Farm, field trips to community gardens, making smoothies using local produce and cooking/baking demonstrations.
“Our seniors love interacting with the kids,” said Sarah Carter, Director of the Champlain Senior Center. “The best part is socializing with the kids and educating them about their community and what’s happening in the world. This significantly improves their mental, social and physical health.”
Although the summer is almost over and kids will be headed back to school soon, BPRW takes pride in the fact that they have been able to increase their efforts to provide healthy meals in convenient social settings for the most vulnerable children in their community, as well as expand and diversify the intergenerational opportunities, allowing older adults and children to share their skills, talents and knowledge. The future is bright in Burlington!
Lesha Spencer-Brown is NRPA’s Senior Program Manager.