Just the other day my neighbor casually mentioned an upcoming camp registration deadline for her kids. For next summer! I was completely caught off guard. Can it really be time to start planning for NEXT summer? I don't even have my Halloween decorations out yet; I don't have child-care plans for a fast approaching school holiday and so much more. Nonetheless, now I am thinking about summer and about what I would like to do differently from last summer. Like many, I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt regarding the number of books my kids did not read and the amount and quality of screen time I allowed. I wasn't prepared with clear examples and scripts when my kids came home from camp having just recently learned less than desirable behaviors and words. I failed again on reading the bullying blogs to give my kids the tools to handle other kid's words and even shoves. Maybe I should start planning now so I can be the mom I want to be next summer? Now that I know about better options, I will be ahead of the game. Studies show that we should all start planning now, for our own children and for the children in our community and our nation.
This is a unique spot, late in the year and planning for summer, which feels much farther away than it actually is. This time, in the fourth quarter, allows us the perfect opportunity to consider year-end contributions to charities. I would implore people to think about how they can allocate support for summer programs and access to food now. According to the Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org), many charities report that they receive 40 percent of their annual contributions during the last few weeks of the year. Donations to charities are highest during the upcoming holiday time, an understandably important time for families in need. However, I would urge individuals to think past this and consider allocating their dollars toward summer initiatives for low-income families. These summer-time programs are essential to the safety and well being of low-income children and many will not be possible without the support and donations of others. The fact is that when school is out, many children lose access to educational opportunities, as well as access to basic needs such as healthy meals and adequate adult supervision. In order to be successful in school and in life, children need ongoing opportunities to learn and practice essential life skills. This is especially true during the summer months. These students in need could thrive in the summer if more corporations and individual donors would consider allocating dollars to summer programs and consider allocating end-of year gifts to give kids living in underserved communities the chance to eat, learn and play in a healthy environment during a time when youth-related crime and hunger peak.
Some research shows that children living in underserved communities are more likely to face struggles related to weight gain, obesity and related health issues than those in higher income neighborhoods (Townsend & Melgar-Quinonez, 2003). This disparity is more exaggerated during the summer and there are many factors to blame. According to the Food Research and Action Center, factors contributing to the gap include 1) access to fresh, healthy, high quality and affordable foods nearby; 2) opportunities for physical activity; 3) cycles of food deprivation and overeating; 4) high stress levels; 5) more exposure to marketing that does not promote healthful living; and 6) limited access to health care. Because of these challenges, families living in underserved communities are at an even greater risk of obesity during the summer (http://frac.org/initiatives/hunger-and-obesity/why-are-low-income-and-food-insecure-people-vulnerable-to-obesity/).
Families living in low-income neighborhoods often do not have grocery stores selling quality produce nearby. Instead, they have nearby fast food restaurants and convenient stores where fresh food is either extremely limited or not available entirely. If healthy food is available, it can seem more expensive to eat; whereas processed food, high in sugar and low in nutritional value, seems a cheaper, simpler option. During the school year, many students are on free or reduced lunch programs guaranteeing them at least one well-balanced and nutritional meal each weekday. That is not the case when they are out of school.
Lower income neighborhoods often do not have safe and well-kept parks, bike paths or recreational facilities. Without a safe and clean bike path, it is a challenge for children to stay physically active. If kids are not getting outside to engage in active play, they are more likely to be sitting inside watching television or playing video games. Additionally, it can be difficult for parents in low-income families to sign children up for organized sports teams over the summer due to cost and transportation difficulties (Duke et al., 2003). When students are in school, they engage in physical daily education classes and many also play team sports and have additional outdoor time to take advantage of.
Food insecurity also causes a detrimental cycle of food deprivation and overeating, which can contribute to obesity. If a person goes stretches of time without food, when food does become available they could be more likely to overeat (Bruening et al., 2012; Dammann & Smith, 2010; Ma et al., 2003; Olson et al., 2007; Smith & Richards, 2008). High levels of stress caused by food insecurity, difficulties paying bills, unsafe neighborhoods, transportation factors, lack of access to health care or any other number of things are also linked to obesity (Block et al., 2009; Gundersen et al., 2011; Lohman et al., 2009; Moore & Cunningham, 2012). Low-income children are exposed to more targeted marketing and advertising messages that promote unhealthy living (video games, fast food, sugary beverages, etc.) (Institute of Medicine, 2006; Institute of Medicine, 2013).
There are numerous studies that prove that students also lose academic ground over the summer. Students lose an average of up to two months in math and students in low-income neighborhoods lose the same amount of progress in reading achievement (Cooper, 1996). This is due to students not engaging in educational activities over the summer. Achievement gaps are also greater among youth in lower-income families due to unequal access to learning activities over the summer (Alexander et al, 2007).
There are organizations working to combat the "summer slide." The National Summer Learning Association's website is a valuable resource. According to the site, "The vision of the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) is for every child to be safe, healthy, and engaged in learning during the summer. To realize that vision, our mission is to connect and equip schools, providers, communities, and families to deliver high-quality summer learning opportunities to our nation's youth to help close the achievement gap and support healthy development." They host a National Summer Learning Day with events across the United States. (http://www.summerlearning.org)
At an Education Week event held this summer in Washington D.C., leaders discussed specific strategies and related challenges to combat the Summer Slide. One of the key themes that came from that event is the importance of involving community leaders, including librarians, after-school program staff and church leaders. Most libraries and local bookstores host reading programs with incentives and other ways to keep students motivated. Check for programs in your area. (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/u/summer-reading/379003570/)
The Summer Food Service Program, part of the United States Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Services, is a program working to ensure that low-income children can still have access to nutritious meals during the summer and they are already hosting webinars to prepare people for this coming summer as well. According to their website (http://www.fns.usda.gov/sfsp/summer-food-service-program-sfsp), "meals, that meet Federal nutrition guidelines, are provided to all children 18 years old and under at approved SFSP sites in areas with significant concentrations of low-income children." Visit the link to see if there are sites in your area offering summer meals to youth.
This summer, Common Threads, a non-profit organization that works to prevent childhood obesity and reverse the trend of generations of non-cookers through cooking and nutrition programs, positively impacted close to 300 students. These students received a total of 15,000 hours of programming and cooked 3,750 meals in the camp, which was sponsored by Barilla. Rising 3rd-5th graders, who participate in free or reduced school lunch programs, in Chicago, Miami and Washington, D.C. attended the three-week camp for free. Campers cooked their way around the globe, competed in healthy cooking competitions, conducted science experiments using basic kitchen items, flowed through sun salutations, and took field trips to local restaurants where they savored three course meals prepared by celebrated chefs and learned basic etiquette. We also integrated substantial math and reading components so that students could practice essential skills to combat summer knowledge loss.
Common Threads engaged Dr. Alexandra Evans, Ph.D., MPH and her team at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, School of Public Health to evaluate the Common Threads Summer Camp in all three cities. The evaluation of the Common Threads Summer Camp program revealed statistically significant improvements in numerous short-term outcome measures. In the area of nutrition, child participants demonstrated significant increases in: nutrition knowledge, willingness to try new foods, preferences for eating fruits and vegetables and willingness to try out foods from other cultures. Students also reported engaging in less screen time and more physical activity, and ate more fruits and vegetables and fewer unhealthy foods, including sugary beverages.
"These results are very promising. The fact that increases in healthy eating behaviors were observed after only three weeks of the intervention indicate the power of interventions that combine cooking, some gardening, and nutrition education. I would love to see this summer program in many more cities around the country," said Dr. Evans.
As a parent, these results have made me think about what I want in a camp for my own kids and what separates a good camp from a great camp. Top camps feature sports or physical activities, games and enriching discussions where children learn about nutrition and healthy living and work on projects in a fun, stimulating environment. Best-in-class camps find ways to integrate substantial math and reading components so that students can practice essential skills and keep their brains engaged. High performing camps provide children with a strategically planned, structured summer experience designed to develop their talents, keep them engaged and expand their horizons.
There are also so numerous other options that students can take advantage of without even leaving home. NPR has compiled a list of free education apps that can offer children with access to a tablet or a smart phone an opportunity to brush up on their reading and math skills over the summer. (http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/05/30/317360969/free-ways-to-beat-the-summer-slide?ft=1&f).
In Brain Chase, a Nationwide Six-Week Online Learning Challenge for students in grades 2nd through 8th, students compete in weekly learning challenges in reading, writing and math for a chance to win prizes. Brain Chase has plans to make their program available, through scholarship opportunities, for students in lower income areas. Their website (http://brainchase.com) has more helpful information. With so many enriching educational games available, there are plenty of options available.
The "summer slide" phenomenon is a widely researched and generally accepted proven fact. Summertime can be an especially difficult time for students in underserved communities and we must do all that we can to fight the losses that these students experience. These programs and more are planned for summer of 2015! Search for opportunities in your area, try to arrange enriching summer experiences that will engage youth in learning, talk to your school administrators/community leaders/librarians and seek out online resources that might be available. Consider supporting summer enrichment this holiday season. By being proactive, we have the power to prevent this negative trend for our own kids, the children in our greater community and those across the nation.
Alexander, K. Entwisle,D., and Olson, L. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72, 167-180.
Block, J. P., He, Y., Zaslavsky, A. M., Ding, L., & Ayanian, J. Z. (2009). Psychosocial stress and change in weight among U.S. adults. American Journal of Epidemiology, 170(2), 181-192.
Gundersen, C., Garasky, S., & Lohman, B. J. (2009). Food insecurity is not associated with childhood obesity as assessed using multiple measures of obesity. Journal of Nutrition, 139(6), 1173-1178.
Bruening, M., MacLehose, R., Loth, K., Story, M., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2012). Feeding a family in a recession: food insecurity among Minnesota parents. American Journal of Public Health, 102(3), 520-526.
Cooper, H., Charlton, K., Valentine, J. C., & Muhlenbruck, L. (2000). Making the most of summer school. A meta-analytic and narrative review. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 65 (1, Serial No. 260), 1-118.
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