Helping Children Reach Their Potential - One meal at a time

Nov. 26, 2019

Ellen Cynar

Building a healthy city often means improving resident access to healthy life choices. As a community, Providence, Rhode Island has incorporated increased healthy food access into its long-term vision of a more inclusive, thriving city. Ensuring year-round youth food access has worked to support positive holistic student development, help prepare students so they are ready to learn, and addressed the nutritional needs of our most vulnerable neighbors.

According to the USDA, in 2018, 11.1% of U.S. households were food insecure at some point throughout the year. Of those, six million were children. Access to places where healthy food is available is an equal barrier, with 61.9% of people in the nation’s 500 largest cities living more than half mile from the nearest super market or grocery. In Providence, 84% of Providence Public School families are low-income and more than half of the city’s children receive SNAP benefits. For many Providence households, hunger is a daily experience often mitigated by the support of federal food programs, like school meals, to meet daily food needs.

Removing Food Barriers to Learning

As the City’s lead agency for health policy and promotion initiatives, the Healthy Communities Office (HCO) supports all of Providence’s current public health efforts. The HCO works to identify healthy programs and policies that can promote meaningful change, engages numerous City departments and external stakeholders, and serves as the community’s connection between local needs and existing supports. In the vision of increasing access to healthy foods city-wide, incorporating access to healthy meals into the daily lives of Providence students is a priority for the HCO.

We know that health and education are inextricably linked and that hungry students are not ready to learn. Schools provide more than half of the weekly meals for many of our students, serving as their most consistent source of nutrition. At the start of this current school year, Providence was approved to utilize the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) in all Providence Public Schools. By allowing qualifying schools to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students, the CEP has become a powerful tool in our efforts to increase youth participation in the school breakfast and lunch program, reduce the stigma of free or reduced-priced meals, and reduce a major barrier to program administration.

Meeting Children Where They Are (and where they play)

While in-school meals are critical, we know that the majority of a student’s day is spent outside of the classroom. That’s why we’ve made significant investments in supporting youth food access in after-school programs and summer months. Though the City has participated in the Summer Food Service Program for many decades, in 2013 it was identified that only 11% of Providence youth participated in the free summer meals. Knowing that this program was not reaching the majority of Providence youth, the City underwent a cross-departmental needs assessment process with the support of the National League of Cities and the Food Research and Action Center to identify barriers to participation.

After talking with families and dozens of community partners, we developed a multi-year outreach strategy to increase awareness and decrease the stigma of receiving summer meals by co-programming play. Since families were already engaged in their local parks, recreation centers, and summer activities program for youth, using these programs as the vehicle to also distribute summer meals dramatically increased participation. Since 2013, Providence has seen a 40% increase in summer meals participation. Building on this success, Providence launched its Eat Play Learn PVD initiative in 2016 to connect the summer meals program to youth play, recreation, learning, and employment programming. In 2018, the initiative won a Childhood Obesity Prevention Award from the United States Conference of Mayors and has continued to bridge gaps for the city’s most vulnerable youth.

In addition to meals served through our Eat Play Learn PVD initiative, we identified opportunities to work across departments and with community partners to serve free dinners at all twelve of Providence’s recreation centers during the school year. We activated these centers to serve as the hub of neighborhoods across the city and connect families to vital resources, like hot meals. Serving hundreds of youth in our daily after-school programs has resulted in significant increases to Providence’s free meals program and supported youth food access efforts state-wide. These efforts are continued by the City’s Inclement Weather Meals Program, which ensures access to healthy meals students depend on during school closures.

Every city is unique and will develop its own roadmap toward better health, but these issues and constraints are not isolated to Providence. Using tools like the City Health Dashboard, Providence has been able to provide data to support comprehensive community engagement and make informed policy decisions reflective of our community’s needs. Our hope is that other cities can learn from our work, share their strategies for improving youth food security and continue to build healthier, thriving cities.

Ellen Cynar, MS, MPH, is the Director of the Healthy Communities Office in Providence, Rhode Island

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