Naturally Impactful: With Summer Program, Columbus Rec and Parks Promotes Food Security and Health
Food scarcity may not be at the front of everyone’s mind in the deep summer months, but it’s a problem the Columbus Department of Recreation and Park prepares to confront every year. For 48 years, the Department has sponsored summer meal programs to make sure that kids who are without school lunches for three months can access healthy meals and find safe spaces to eat, while taking some of financial burden off working families.
“When kids are out of school family food budgets are stretched tight,” said Brian Hoyt, Communications and Marketing Manager for Columbus Recreation and Parks, in an email. “That’s true of working class families as well as those closer to and below the poverty line. The Summer Lunch Service Program assures that all families, regardless of income, can access nutritious meals for their children in their own neighborhoods in safe community spaces.”
For many Columbus kids, a summer without school lunches only adds to the year-round problem of food deserts; areas and neighborhoods where food, especially nutritional food, is hard or impossible to find. Hoyt said many of Recreation and Parks’ summer meal sites are located in food deserts, helping families save money and preventing kids from having to choose affordable but unhealthy meal options.
“We use a variety of mapping tools and census data to see where the needs are in the community and look for creative solutions when our typical site-based meal sites won’t work,” said Hoyt. “We work with larger partners, like the Y to run pop-up camps in neighborhood apartment complexes or parks, take our food truck out, and provide AmeriCorps members to increase the capacity at existing sites. We also work with MidOhio Foodbank to host their free Produce Markets at some recreation centers located in food deserts.”
It’s not enough, however, to make sure kids have food to eat. Access to healthy and nutritious food is essential.
“Summer is a critical time for children’s academic and physical well-being,” said Hoyt. “During the summer children are at a higher risk of both obesity and hunger. Summer meals programs provide free summer meals for kids and can become an important source of nutritious food for children and youth during this time.”
The Columbus Recreation and Parks Summer Food Program is part of a national program by the US Department of Agriculture, which means the nutritional guidelines are very specific. According to Hoyt, Columbus City School’s food service staff members, including a dietician, craft the program’s menu to make sure the nutritional standards are met or exceeded. Certain items such as pork are left off the menu to respect the cultural needs of many of the participating kids.
The Summer Food Program served more than 500,000 meals throughout the summer of 2016, with over 16,000 lunches served on their busiest day. This year, the department has 220 food sites all over the city, and started the Go Lunch! Campaign to help organize the program’s partners and try to fight some of the stigma that can be associated with utilizing a free lunch program.
Beyond nutrition and food security, the program aims to give kids something safe and enriching to do in the middle of a long Columbus Summer.
“Most sites also provide some kind of programming – recreation or arts or education – around meal time, to keep kids busy and engaged,” said Hoyt. “Because the sites are community based it also allows families to connect with organizations who will be in their neighborhood year round. Getting to know a local librarian over lunch in the summer may make it more likely that a kid will go back for homework help in the fall. Connecting with a staff member at a Rec Center can keep a kid engaged and off the street, year round, for years.”
Naturally Impactful is brought to you by the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, which works to enrich and change the lives of our citizens. The column is an effort to share the story of how the pillars of Health and Wellness, Conservation and Social Equity drive the work we do. Each month the column will focus on different sections of the department using these pillars to create a positive impact on our residents’ and visitors’ quality of life along with providing basic knowledge of the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, #CRPD. To find more about upcoming happenings at your Columbus Recreation and Parks, visit their Facebook page, Twitter page, or columbus.gov/recreationandparks.