Progressive Voice: Let’s Keep All Arlington Kids Healthy This Summer

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Sheila Fleischhacker

It’s unthinkable any child goes hungry or experiences “summertime anxiety,” which is associated with summer’s unstructured nature and is marked by the lack of predictability in what each day is going to look like or, for some children, whether there will be enough to eat.

Yet hunger among Arlington kids does exist. One in 10 Arlington Public Schools (APS) middle and high school students reports having experienced hunger. A third of APS students qualify for federally assisted school meals — from less than 1% at Tuckahoe to 81% at Carlin Springs.

“Many Arlington children rely on school meals,” explained Charles Meng, executive director of the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC), which served more than 12,000 people last year. “During the summer, our families face higher food costs on already-tight budgets (an estimated additional $800 per child).”

All APS summer school programs offer federally supported meal services. Any child not enrolled in summer school can participate in summer meal services at Barrett, Carlin Springs, Kenmore and Hoffman-Boston. “While enjoying a delicious school breakfast with Carlin Springs students, I have seen first-hand how dedicated our schools are to getting students excited about school meals,” observed Matt de Ferranti, an Arlington County Board member. “It’s inspiring to hear about creative solutions to ensure access to healthy meals while decreasing stigma, such as breakfast in the classroom at Oakridge and Hoffman-Boston.” Strengthening each school’s local wellness policy is another important tool.

Outside of school, Arlington’s community centers, parks and recreational centers, childcare centers, Boys & Girls Clubs, faith-based organizations, and others participate in federally assisted programs that provide free, healthy summer meals to children. SummerFoodRocks helps locate meal sites or text “FOOD” to 877877 and, after providing an address, you will receive a message about free summer meal sites.

Individuals can engage in partnerships or volunteer opportunities such as developing innovative transportation approaches to sites or providing musical entertainment during lunchtime. AFAC, for instance, depends on more than 2,200 volunteers to help bag, distribute, drive, glean or grow food for participating families.

Summer is also a ripe time to consider ways to initiate or contribute to youth-driven efforts to address food security in Arlington, such as coordinating food drives. Arlingtonians can also support local efforts striving to provide all of Arlington with healthy food. As one example, visit local farmers’ markets, which feature vendors participating in the Virginia Fresh Match. Fresh Match enables USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants (about half of which include children) to earn an additional $10 to spend on food at the farmers’ market for each $10 they redeem at participating farmers’ markets.

When talking about hunger, it may seem counter-intuitive, but many children gain weight at a faster rate in the summer than in the school year. Efforts to reduce childhood obesity generally fail to focus on where children spend their summer. Not all summer options provide structured environments for kids that promote healthful behaviors.

Structured mealtime, like participating in the USDA summer meal sites, helps. Evidence suggests meals served through federally supported programs are healthier than meals provided by many parents. For parents packing meals this summer, consider these tips regarding packing or serving healthy meals and snacks, including breakfast for lunch and thermos options.

Finally, children should be physically active every day for at least 60 minutes and limit their sedentary activity, such as screen time, to no more than 2 hours. Get out and play — we have more than 150 parks and recreational facilities and various free summer evening programs such as Rec on Wheels.

This combination of a caring community, healthy meals available close to home, and plenty of physical activity can combat hunger among our kids — especially during the summer — and contribute to a healthier Arlington overall. Join Arlington’s Healthy Communities Action Team (HCAT) if interested in collaborative efforts aiming to reduce childhood obesity.

Sheila Fleischhacker is the Chair of the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth and Families. Dr. Fleischhacker is a nutrition scientist, public health lawyer and registered dietitian, with more than 15 years of experience working in academic, government and non-government sectors to strengthen the role of law and policy approaches to improve healthy eating, particularly among high risk, underserved communities. She is the mother of two children living in Alcova Heights.