Across the country, more than 6 million children live in households at risk of struggling with hunger. Often, these struggles are the result of food insecurity, or living in areas without reasonable access to grocery stores. These same kids face the threat of chronic disease, including obesity and heart disease, due to lack of healthy foods and physical activity opportunities. Kids also often fall victim to unsafe environments during the critical out-of-school time hours – the times in which they’re left at home alone while parents work.
Since 2010, grant funding from the Walmart Foundation has supported local park and recreation agencies in serving 90 million meals to nearly 5 million kids. Over 300 cities and thousands of meal sites across the country have benefitted from this partnership. Children have also benefited from programs implementing the Healthy Eating, Physical Activity (HEPA) standards, ensuring that kids have access to healthier environments.
In January 2018, NRPA was awarded $1.5 million from the Walmart Foundation for the Increasing Access to Healthy Meals at Parks grant. To learn more about the communities our park and recreation agencies serve across the country, we provided grants to two cohorts.
- Cohort I focused on 21 large urban and suburban communities across the country, with the goal of learning what their challenges are, and what solutions exist. What we found is that in fact, these challenges only make agencies more resourceful.
- Cohort II focused on 10 rural agencies in three states: Colorado, Kansas, and Mississippi. Each of these three states has experienced persistent poverty, low food access and high rates of chronic disease impacting youth and families. Within this cohort our goal was to identify the specific challenges and barriers, as well as the unique assets and partnerships that rural communities use to address hunger, nutrition and improve health outcomes.
During this year, NRPA learned so much from our grantees. One of the biggest lessons learned was the significant role that local parks and recreation play in communities. While we knew parks and recreation were an integral part of communities, the services they provide and the relationships they build exceeded our expectations. Agencies are leading providers, and in some cases the only providers, of out-of-school time programming, youth sports, senior programs, exercise classes, and mentorship programs.
With our grantees having such unique assets, we wanted to tell their story in an equally unique way. Through a digital, interactive story map, the successes, highlights, and impact of this grant are able to be seen through photos, maps, and videos.
Throughout this grant year, we saw grantees start out-of-school time meal programs for the first time, expand existing programs, engage kids with healthy eating and gardening, and build connections that benefit kids socially and emotionally. In fact:
- In rural communities, there was a nearly 74 percent increase in knowledge about planting food gardens;
- In rural communities, students reported eating 10 percent more vegetables and nearly 20 percent more fruit than the start of the out-of-school time program. In non-rural communities, students consumed nearly 12 percent more vegetables than when they started the program;
- In both cohorts, 90 percent of kids sharing that they “have new friends they met at camp,” 90 percent of campers indicated they feel happier “because of going to camp this summer,” and 80 percent of campers indicated that they feel they have more confidence because of camp.
We’re proud of the impact these 31 agencies have on their community and are looking forward to their continued success. What we’ve seen done in communities across the country this year is nothing short of remarkable, and is an inspiring lesson on what can be done in every community, regardless of size, financial status, or capacity.
Maureen Acquino is an NRPA Program Manager on the Health and Wellness Team.