This story was originally published in the June/July 2015 issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
Summer break is typically met with rejoicing from weary students looking for some time to relax. However, for some kids who receive the majority of their meals during the school day through free and reduced lunch programs, summer may not be quite as enjoyable, or as nutritious.
The YMCA’s Summer Food Program is dedicated to making sure that summer is a fun-filled time of physical activity, education, and good food for all kids in the Chattanooga area.
The Summer Food Program operates under the YMCA’s Mobile Fit department, which is devoted to making sure all community members have access to healthy food choices. They recently launched a healthy corner store in Alton Park and are also organizing several farmers markets for families who want to live healthy lifestyles but have limited resources.
Building off of this commitment, the YMCA launched the Summer Food Program four years ago in collaboration with the Hamilton County Department of Education. The department had conducted a survey among school children in Hamilton County and found that of the children who qualified for free or reduced lunch during the school year, only 6.7% of them were participating in any sort of physical education or activity in the summer. Not only were they not exercising, many of them were also not receiving proper nutrition during this time.
“We were then approached to help make sure that kids were receiving healthy meals and physical activity during the summer, as well as continued exposure to academic material during the educational gap of the summer,” says Bill Rush, the Branch Director at the J.A. Henry YMCA.
Four years later, the YMCA has created a program that addresses all of those issue and more. The Summer Food program operates out of all of the YMCA locations, as well as a number of neighborhood parks and green spaces near apartment complexes and public housing areas in order to be able to reach kids who lack a means of transportation in the summer.
Each morning, volunteers gather at YMCA locations to prepare healthy sack lunches and organize the day’s activities. Depending on the size of the site, one or two volunteers will travel to the location to provide a meal, do some sort of educational reading or science project, and coordinate a group physical exercise game or activity. The program is very inclusive, as kids are not required to be officially enrolled in a formal YMCA summer program to be able to participate, which encourages participation, especially at the neighborhood sites.
“We are particularly committed to reaching at-risk youths and being able to provide a service to underserved areas of our community,” says Rush.
In order for the program to be a success, the YMCA relies heavily on committed volunteers, who take on a mentorship role for the kids at their site. “We ask that the site coordinators take their role seriously,” says Rush. “Modeling the behavior we are trying to teach is important. If they are going to eat something on site, it should be healthy too. They really are acting as role models for these kids.” The program also tries to make sure the same volunteer continues serving at the same site each day so that the kids can develop a relationship and begin building trust.
Since its inception four years ago, the Food Program has grown from 7 sites to 62 locations within Hamilton County during the summer of 2014, with 17 sites that operate throughout the year. Now over 12%, or about 2,500, of the kids surveyed in Hamilton County are involved in physical activity, up from 6.7% at the time of the original survey. Last summer, they served over 2,000 lunches a day all over the county.
While the program has obviously been successful so far, the YMCA is still striving to reach more children. One way they reach larger populations is through partnerships with other local organizations like Girls Inc., the Northside Neighborhood House, and area churches. The YMCA is also able to provide support for smaller organizations that may not have the funds or resources that the YMCA has access to but share a similar mission.
“This program is not just about the YMCA,” says Rush. “There are still about 22,000 other kids out there and we can’t reach them all on our own. We want other people and other organizations to get involved with us.”
“We sometimes will receive phone calls from other organizations or individuals telling us about a location in need of a food program,” says Laura Horne, Program Director for Mobile Fit. “We spend the months leading up to the summer finalizing our program site list to make sure we are meeting the needs of as many community members as possible.”
Though the site list is typically finalized by June, if the YMCA becomes aware of a community in need of a food program during the summer, they are always eager to expand their outreach area if they can find a space to operate from or partner with another area organization.
With a focus on partnerships and a commitment to serving school children all over Chattanooga, the YMCA is sure to have another successful Summer Foods program this year.
“When people can really help each other out by supporting each other, especially when it comes to making healthy decisions in their lives, all the work is worth it,” says Rush. “There is nothing better than neighbors helping neighbors.”
Learn more at ymcachattanooga.org