Commit to Health: Fulfilling Park and Recreation’s Role as a Health and Wellness Leader

March 5, 2019, Feature, by Allison Colman

2019 March Feature Commit to Health 2 410

It’s been five years since NRPA’s CEO, Barbara Tulipane, CAE, stood alongside former First Lady Michelle Obama to announce NRPA’s formal commitment to Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) and officially launch the Commit to Health campaign on February 25, 2014. In their remarks that day, both Tulipane and Obama spoke about the childhood obesity epidemic, the rising rates of chronic disease, the difficulty families face in making the healthy choice the easy choice and the toll these issues are taking on the physical, social and economic health of our communities. Both referenced the shocking statistic that made childhood obesity Obama’s official platform — the fact that for the first time in history, this generation of youth has a shorter life expectancy than their parents’ generation.

Despite the grim statistics that were cited, that day also provided a moment of excitement, inspiration and recognition for parks and recreation. It was a day that called to action the collective power of the park and recreation field to build on its strengths, rise to the challenge and “Commit to Health,” fulfilling our role as essential health and wellness leaders. In the past five years, local park and recreation agencies have not only risen to the challenge and delivered, but they also have exceeded our expectations.

Commit to Health

In 2014, NRPA made a formal commitment to the PHA to engage park and recreation-based, out-of-school time (OST) sites in the implementation of the National Afterschool Association’s Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards. The HEPA standards address the quality of food, physical activity, nutrition education programming and the environment within OST sites, ensuring that kids in grades K–12 have the best possible health and wellness outcomes. The HEPA standards include serving a fruit or vegetable at every meal, providing water at all times, limiting screen time, ensuring that youth are meeting the daily recommendations for moderate to vigorous physical activity and providing evidence-based nutrition education. NRPA partners with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (AHG) to ensure that sites have the tools needed to assess their OST sites, set goals and create an action plan to meet the standards, track their progress and access resources to support their efforts. After five years of partnership, 2,080 sites are implementing the HEPA standards through Commit to Health, reaching nearly 500,000 youth annually.

Building on Existing Strengths

Park and recreation agencies have an extensive reach into communities nationwide, especially in the services they provide to youth and families. Kellie May, NRPA’s director of health and wellness, shares that “park and recreation agencies are located in nearly every community and serve a large number of children, including low-income children and families, and those from historically marginalized populations. Daily, park and recreation agencies provide fun, physical activity opportunities, frequently serve meals and/or snacks to children and offer enrichment activities, making park and recreation agencies ideal locations for children to learn healthy habits and grow up to live healthy lives.”

Through Commit to Health, park and recreation agencies were challenged to build on this strong foundation of providing physical activity and meals to youth and take steps to enhance these elements to meet the HEPA standards. For example, thousands of park and recreation sites provide meals during the summer months to low-income children through the federally funded USDA Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). But, what is the quality of the food being served? Commit to Health served as a catalyst for park and recreation agencies to assess and improve the quality of food provided at sites. Hundreds of agencies have worked with meal program sponsors and vendors to completely revamp their menus, serving more fruits and vegetables, healthier milk and dairy options, and eliminating trans fats, fried foods and sugar-sweetened beverages from their menus. Some agencies have even pushed the envelope and adopted official citywide wellness policies that improve food quality at concession stands, swimming pools, in vending machines and more.

The same is true for physical activity. Although it wasn’t hard for most sites to ensure kids were meeting the daily recommendations for physical activity, it was helpful to take a step back and really evaluate the activities that were taking place. Were the physical activities age-appropriate? Were they inclusive? Were kids spending more time moving or more time standing in line? Was the activity fun? Park and recreation agencies responded to this call to action to meet the standards. Fitness professionals were brought in to instruct classes like Zumba and kickboxing, they encouraged youth to create their own games, added short physical activity bursts throughout the day and trained their staff on how to ensure programs were inclusive for all abilities.

Ava DeBovis, national network manager for AHG, elaborated on the achievements of park and recreation agencies: “P&R professionals across the country have become such passionate champions for children’s health! We have seen Commit to Health give so many communities a public health platform to capitalize on what they do best, providing high-quality outdoor park experiences and recreational programming to youth, adults and families. I think the greatest successes have been seeing how agencies have made Commit to Health their own. Everything from leading coalitions that bring dollars into their community, nutritious meals at summer camp and refreshed fitness trails in underserved areas, to smoothie bike demonstrations, meaningful staff wellness programs that engage seasonal and full-time staff, and even healthy vending machine marketing! I love to see all the creativity and passion for sustainability.”

In addition to building on meal and physical activity programs, agencies have leveraged other existing assets, capacity and infrastructure to build stronger, more intentional health and wellness opportunities for youth and families. One of the more popular strategies agencies have used to encourage youth to try new, fresh and healthy produce is by infusing gardening into their OST programs. In fact, according to the 2018 OST survey of the park and recreation field, 50 percent of agencies now offer gardening activities at their OST sites. Through the city of Mobile, Alabama’s Commit to Health pledge, a community garden was built and is open to all. The garden offers youth learning opportunities, such as inviting local chefs in to teach them about the nutritional content of and to cook with food grown in the garden.

Gardens can be an effective way to teach kids how to grow produce, encourage them to try new foods and educate them on creating sustainable and environmentally responsible food systems. Often, this exposure to nature and healthy food sparks a passion for gardening and an appetite for trying new foods throughout life. A 2017 study of Commit to Health agencies implementing nutrition education and community gardening activities in summer camp programs resulted in a 23 percent increase in the number of children reporting that they were growing fruits and vegetables in a garden at home.

Fulfilling Our Role

Commit to Health challenged park and recreation agencies not only to embrace a health and wellness mindset within their OST programming, but it also encouraged them to address other community gaps and public health threats related to the social determinants of health — education, jobs, healthcare, community safety, etc. Park and recreation agencies once again rose to the challenge, building STEM, arts and career-readiness training into their healthy living curriculums; recruiting, engaging and training youth ambassadors to be health and wellness leaders; establishing programming in affordable housing communities; and facilitating opportunities for intergenerational and multicultural programming. Agencies went above and beyond healthy eating and physical activity, tackling inequities in their communities that create significant health and economic disparities.

At-risk youth in the Atgeld Garden Chicago Housing Authority community can engage in hands-on gardening and cooking programs at Carver Park. The Chicago Park District partnered with local nonprofit Growing Power, Inc., to employ teens and teach them about sustainable urban farming, culinary skills, healthy meal preparation and composting. In the summer months, more than 100 teens spend their mornings working on the farm and their afternoons enjoying the fruits and vegetables of their labor by preparing healthy meals under the supervision of a chef. Through this partnership, teens are learning lifelong culinary skills and developing healthy habits that will follow them throughout their adult years. In addition, the program offers youth employment opportunities, keeping them engaged and learning during the summer months.

In just five years, we’ve seen the transformation of OST programs in parks and recreation, evolving from recreation providers to true health and wellness professionals. Since 2016, the number of park and recreation agencies offering nutrition education to youth has doubled (from 32 percent to 64 percent in 2018), and we are seeing results! A 2017 Commit to Health evaluation demonstrated that kids who are receiving nutrition education through NRPA’s Foods of the Month curriculum are consuming more fruits and vegetables, understanding how to read a nutrition label, cooking and preparing foods and using MyPlate to guide their eating choices. An independent evaluation of Commit to Health sites in 2018 found that 96 percent of CTH sites are meeting the daily physical activity recommendations, 87 percent of sites are limiting screen time, 95 percent of sites are providing drinking water at all times to youth and staff, and 89 percent of sites are serving a fruit or vegetable at every meal. While childhood obesity c
ontinues to impact us all, park and recreation leaders have established themselves as an essential component of community health.

The Next Five Years

This generation of youth has its fair share of challenges ahead of it, and new threats emerge each day that are taking a toll on our communities. What will the role of park and recreation agencies be in fostering healthy outcomes for youth and families in the next five years? How can we continue to rise to the challenge and respond to the needs of the communities we serve?

In 2018, the NAA HEPA standards were refreshed (HEPA 2.0), recognizing that the OST field has an even bigger role to play in promoting healthy outcomes for youth across multiple dimensions — physical, mental, social, emotional and economic health. Daniel Hatcher, director of community partnerships at Healthier Gen, provided some context for the HEPA standards refresh: “The refresh was in response to feedback from educators and leaders across the country, and it has allowed us to update key action planning tools and professional development resources to encourage the integration of social-emotional health into the implementation of the standards, a critical step in responding to contemporary issues facing our communities. HEPA 2.0 encourages users to find opportunities to blend nutrition, physical activity and social-supports.”

Park and recreation agencies are already leading in this expanded focus on health. In the city of Montrose, Colorado, the summer program staff made sure children had an opportunity to share and express their feelings during programming. “If they were upset, we wanted them to make sure our environment empowered them to express their feelings. Some of the children we serve come from challenging homes; to be heard is important for their well-being. As leaders, we practiced our communication skills as well. We didn’t yell, we role modeled appropriate conversations skills. We would see that during the program these skills would be modeled by the children to their friends if they had disagreements. They expressed themselves and learned to resolve their issues on their own.”

NRPA will continue to lead agencies to think more holistically about health in their communities, better preparing OST professionals to support both physical and mental health outcomes. May says: “NRPA’s hope is that through the strong foundation that Commit to Health has laid, park and recreation OST programs will continue to provide physical activity and healthy food options but will also provide support for children’s mental and social-emotional health through mentoring and other types of targeted services. We know that P&R can often provide that one caring adult who changes a child’s life forever.”

Allison Colman (she/her/hers) is an NRPA Senior Program Manager.