It’s National Park and Recreation Month! In this guest post, Allison Colman, program manager at the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), highlights how local park and recreation agencies fight hunger.

As one of the largest providers of summer meals, local park and recreation agencies around the nation are at the forefront in addressing childhood hunger. In fact, park and recreation agencies serve millions of meals each year to children in summer day camp programs, at drop-in sites at outdoor parks and pools, and across other nonprofit and city sites through the federally-funded Summer Nutrition Programs.

While fighting childhood hunger and ensuring equitable access to these vital meal programs has long been an issue that local parks have been investing in, agencies have more recently begun to focus on evaluating and addressing other crucial elements of these programs — the quality and nutritional value of the food.

NRPA’s Commit to Health campaign supports the implementation and evaluation of the National Afterschool Association’s Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards at park and recreation sites across the country. The HEPA standards were created by a national coalition of out-of-school time leaders (including the Food Research & Action Center) to create evidence-based values that foster the best possible nutritional and physical activity outcomes for children attending out-of-school time programs.

The HEPA standards have been adopted by many organizations, including NRPA, the YMCA of the USA, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, in an effort to ensure that every child in an out-of-school time program has the same quality of experience and the best possible health outcomes.

In 2014, NRPA made a public commitment to the Partnership for a Healthier America to engage 2,000 local park and recreation sites in the implementation of the HEPA standards, addressing both food quality and physical activity in out-of-school time programs. NRPA partners with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to offer technical assistance and direct support to agencies on implementing HEPA.

Since 2014, over 1,500 park and recreation sites have adopted the HEPA standards, which impact more than 270,000 youth annually, with increased access to healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity.

In 2016, NRPA completed a third-party evaluation of the Commit to Health initiative and found that agencies are successfully demonstrating many of the nutrition standards. In fact, 95 percent of sites provide drinking water to youth and staff at all times, 93 percent of sites serve only low-fat plain or non-fat flavored milk, 89 percent serve only non-fat or reduced-fat dairy products, 85 percent serve a fruit or vegetable at every meal, and 86 percent of sites offer evidence-based nutrition education to kids.

For agencies which were already meal providers (through the federal Summer and Afterschool Nutrition Programs), Commit to Health offers an opportunity to serve the most vulnerable youth healthier meals. Agencies can evaluate food content and quality across the programs, implement strategies and policies to improve nutritional value, and monitor organizational success and individual impacts of weight loss, chronic disease reduction, and more.

In Rock Island, Illinois, Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center offers the predominantly low-income African American residents a day camp program that provides a place where children can engage socially, physically, and in different educational and enrichment opportunities. One child shared that his favorite part of attending summer camp was knowing that he would be served a healthy breakfast and lunch — food that would fuel his ability to grow up strong and healthy, food that did not leave him hungry, and food that was also good for his younger brothers and sisters. This individual expressed a maturity beyond his age; he is the caretaker of his younger siblings, walking with them to and from camp every day and looking out for them at home while his mother works. For this particular child and his family, camp is more than just running around with friends and playing games; camp is their oasis.

While no child should worry about where their next meal is coming from, NRPA’s Commit to Health initiative offers an opportunity to not only address hunger, but to address food quality as well. By taking these programs a step further, park and recreation agencies are leading the way to healthier summer meals and healthier communities.

The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) is the leading nonprofit dedicated to improving the health and sustainability of communities for all people through parks, recreation and conservation.