“Candy’s not a food!”
Those words from an afterschool student at a Boys & Girls Club in Glen Burnie, Maryland, and the fundamental realization about food choices they reflect, go straight to the heart of the Maryland Out of School Time (MOST) Network’s Healthy Behaviors Initiative (HBI).
Begun in 2013, this effort to promote Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards rests on a web of partnerships MOST has built with afterschool and summer-learning program providers, a statewide hunger relief organization, one of the mid-Atlantic region’s largest grocery chains and a university-based nutrition education program.
The initiative began when the MOST Network “became the first statewide healthy-out-of-school time intermediary to bring the training, resources and support of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to out-of-school-time (OST) program providers,” according to Ellie Mitchell, MOST network director.
MOST’s first step was to identify afterschool programs to participate. For that, MOST partnered with the Maryland Food Bank, which operates a meal distribution network based in soup kitchens, food pantries and schools across the state, providing more than 41 million meals to Marylanders every year.
The need for the food bank’s services is pressing. Between 2012 and 2016, as the nation’s economy recovered from the Great Recession, participation in the National School Lunch Program, which provides meal subsidies for children of low-income families, declined nationally by more than 1.3 million children. But Maryland was one of eight states to buck that positive trend as more children from low-income families in the state became eligible. The Food Bank provided support to MOST to work with ten afterschool sites in the Food Bank’s network, with funding provided by the Giant Food Foundation, the charitable arm of a regional grocery store chain.
Leveraging afterschool professionals
MOST deployed VISTA volunteers to recruit the initial ten programs for HBI’s first year. The following two years brought an additional ten programs per year, for a total of 30 by 2016. VISTA volunteers for MOST continue to support all 30 of those programs today.
Tammy Shay, MOST’s former director of programs, policy, and communications, says the programmatic approach was designed to “inform and create role models at OST programs so that they can infuse the healthy eating and physical activity knowledge into their programs.” So MOST provided the Alliance’s Healthy Out of School Time Framework as well as technical assistance to guide the programs’ work, and arranged for afterschool program staff to receive professional development training in nutrition from the University of Maryland Extension’s Food Supplement Nutrition Education program, backed again by funding from the Giant Food Foundation.
MOST is also collaborating with its HBI partners to provide HEPA training sessions for afterschool program staff, both in person and via webinar. A key focus of those sessions, according to Shay, is “to help OST staff become role models so they can then model that healthy eating and physical activity knowledge to their kids.”
Making strides in fitness
The Police Athletic League (PAL) afterschool program at Landsdowne Middle School in Baltimore signed onto HBI in its first year.
“When we got involved with MOST, we signed a contract setting out specific fitness goals, and saying we’d work to reach them,” explains Lisa Ritchey, PAL coordinator. “Then we upped our fitness program a lot to get there.”
She says students now participate in dodgeball; disk golf; basketball; soccer and more. In addition, the program offers students the chance to participate in Major League Baseball’s Pitch, Hit & Run program, a youth skills competition with strong appeal in baseball-loving Baltimore.
Fighting the food desert
The HBI initiative also accelerated Lansdowne’s move to healthier food, Ritchey says. The program provides both snacks and meals to youth, the great majority of whom are eligible for free or reduced price lunches. In the summer and during school-year vacations, the program provides both a snack and lunch.
“Some of our kids might not get that meal, otherwise,” Ritchey explains.
The food is provided by Kidz Table, a Baltimore-based, mission-focused vendor associated with St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore, a local nonprofit working to alleviate poverty. Kidz Table provides fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as other nutritious food items to 6,000 children across the city. Ninety percent of the sites it serves are in or next door to “food deserts” – communities without grocery stores and other sources of nutritious food.
Making assessments for success
On the other side of Baltimore, PAL’s Wade Henninger, coordinator of the afterschool program at Mars Estates PAL Center, reports that at first the program’s work with MOST felt like a supplement to the fitness activities the program already offered.
“It wasn’t a big transition,” but the annual assessments required of participants were “really an eye opener. The surveys have you take inventory of what you’re doing, and a couple things really make you think.” He notes, for example, that some of his younger staff had been in the habit of drinking sodas in front of youth, but that the survey reminded him of the importance of “sending the right message by setting an example.”
“With surveys and training, they really hold you to a higher standard,” Henninger concludes. “I’m more knowledgeable as a PAL Coordinator and leader because of the trainings. It’s definitely improved overall program quality.”
Sourced from Afterschool Alliance. Original story available here.