National Recreation and Parks Association Implements New Standards Impacting More Than a Quarter of a Million Children

There are now more than 1,750 local park and recreation agencies across the country involved in Commit to Health, which includes 19 evidence-based Healthy Eating Physical Activity (HEPA) standards such as serving fruits and vegetables at every meal, limiting sugary beverages and screen time, and ensuring the inclusion of moderate to vigorous physical activities for kids. But Chicago took its commitment the furthest, wrapping the 19 HEPA standards and more into a district-wide wellness policy that will live on long past NPRA’s five-year commitment to PHA, ensuring that every child attending programming at the city’s 529 park sites and 125 out-of-school-time programs will benefit.

Making (and sampling) zucchini pizza bites is just one of numerous activities the park district has been offering kids in its out-of-school-time programs since joining Commit to Health, a nationwide effort to create healthier environments for children in National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) programs. Commit to Health asks participating park and recreation agencies to increase healthier food offerings, physical activities, and health and wellness education for families.

Taste testing is what helped the Chicago Park District put foods such as grilled chicken nuggets with broccoli, whole wheat bagels, and carrot sticks on the menu at 52 after-school sites across the city, said Colleen Lammell-Harmon, who led the city’s task force in developing the district-wide policy. “We wanted to include stuff the kids would eat,” she said.

But serving up healthier, kid-friendly foods isn’t all they did. They overhauled offerings in their vending machines—which had been experiencing poor sales—replacing high-fat chips and sugary candy bars with baked chips, fruit and nut bars, baked cheddar crackers, and low-fat yogurt. “We picked snacks that give you the most nutrients,” she said, adding that since the change, sales are so high “we’re having a hard time keeping the vending machines full.”

What’s more, water and drinks with zero calories are priced 25 percent lower than all sugar-sweetened beverages to encourage better choices. The shift to healthier food and beverage options is backed up by nutrition education during all of their programming, said Lammell-Harmon. “We’re teaching them that water should be their first choice.”

All foods purchased and served in the city’s parks must now meet federal and state nutrition standards and gain approval from the Wellness Department. Since updating nutrition criteria in 2017, more than two million meals meeting these standards have been served to Chicago’s youth.

“They went above and beyond in Chicago. They’ve set themselves up so that these standards will be sustainable and will continue to make an impact over time,” said Allison Colman, Director of Health at NRPA. By wrapping the standards into a city-wide policy, she explained, the Chicago Park District also resolved equity challenges. “Every single child, no matter what neighborhood they are living in, is entitled to the same health and wellness outcomes as other kids.”

NRPA is now nearing completion of its commitment to PHA, which began in 2014. Since then, more than 1,750 summer camp and before- and after-school sites in 48 states have joined Commit to Health and incorporated the HEPA standards into their programming. Because of this, more than 318,000 youth have increased access to healthier meals and snacks and greater opportunities to run and play.

Though the commitment ends this year, the shift to a wellness focus at America’s local parks will live on, said Colman, who noted that NRPA had developed its own evidence-based nutrition curriculum that can be accessed for free on its website by all partner agencies and community-based childcare providers, such as the YMCA of the USA, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and others. “All of these agencies are still engaged in our initiatives,” she said. “That has been one of the biggest successes from a national perspective.”

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