The first year of Commit to Health was quite exciting for NRPA, from the launch event with First Lady Michelle Obama in Miami to celebrating the 486 park and recreation sites across the country that have committed to implementing the Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards. Although this is a great start to a five-year initiative and we certainly are taking a moment to celebrate this month, we don’t want to lose momentum and are encouraging more park and recreation sites to join in this collective effort. Why is it important? Simply stated, this is the first generation of children who will live shorter lives than their parents.
Park and recreation agencies are increasingly a part of the critical solution to providing healthy environments, including access to nutritious foods and opportunities for physical activity for children. A recent article published in the peer-reviewed journal Preventive Medicine titled, “Promoting physical activity in out-of-school-time (OST) programs: We built the bridge — Can we walk over it?” describes the collective effort at the national level among OST providers, such as YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, National AfterSchool Association and others, to implement the HEPA standards in OST and address a public health issue — childhood obesity. Park and recreation agencies through NRPA’s commitment to the HEPA standards are now also being recognized as part of this effort.
Two agencies that have had early success with HEPA implementation are Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation in Virginia and Montgomery County Parks and Recreation in Maryland.
Arlington has made great strides in fulfilling its pledge to Commit to Health. In just one year’s time, Arlington is meeting 16 of the 19 HEPA standards and best practices! This is positively impacting the health of approximately 150 K-5 youth across the three Kids in Action after-school pilot locations. They could not have accomplished this goal so quickly without the substantial technical support from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The Alliance has conducted three staff trainings thus far to educate staff on using their Healthy Out-of-School Time framework and has provided them with countless additional resources. Capital Area Food Bank’s Kids Café has been another essential partner in Arlington’s success and continues to work with Arlington to improve the health of its offerings. Above all, Arlington’s success is due to the strong leadership for creating a culture of health and the support from the staff directly implementing the standards. A staff member from Lubber Run Community Center, Myesha Taylor, saw the cool FitArlington blender bike at an event and brought it to her site so the kids could pedal their way to a smoothie and learn about the benefits of eating more fruits. Arlington also held a special event on National Food Day as a kickoff event to make nutrition and physical activity fun and inform parents of the commitment. The event brought together kids from all three sites to taste different apple varieties, play active games with the DJ and engage in a cooking demonstration. Arlington hopes to expand this initiative to more sites and continue implementing more national healthy eating and physical activity standards and best practices in the upcoming year.
Montgomery County, Maryland, introduced the HEPA standards to site-level leaders in five of their largest youth-serving programs, which reached more than 8,000 young people in 2014. Through this process, they established a new summer program, Food, Fun and Fitness, which pairs drop-in physical activity with free meals for children under 18. Montgomery County estimates that meals served through USDA meal programs have a yearly positive economic impact on families of more than $600 per child for those taking full advantage of free opportunities. Additionally, they have restructured their organization to establish a new position that will coordinate health and wellness efforts for the department and established a formal agreement with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to help support their efforts to implement the HEPA standards.
As Arlington and Montgomery Counties have demonstrated in 2014, park and recreation agencies are positively impacting youth by providing healthier food options and increased opportunities for physical activity through implementation of the HEPA standards. If your agency hasn’t taken the pledge, there is still plenty of time to get started on this important work. Take the pledge today. As we celebrate Year One, we look forward to four more years and the success we will have together!
Kellie May is NRPA’s Senior Program Manager.