Growing up, summer meant red-stained t-shirts to accompany sticky watermelon hands–bursts of juice and butter streaming along my chin as fresh corn parted from a cob at the mercy of my enthusiastic chomp. My childhood summer memories are enhanced by the indispensable presence of fresh south Georgia produce, flavors of the season that made for seriously good eatin’ (and a perpetually messy child). In my naive child brain, never would I have imagined that some kids didn’t replace entire meals with fresh blueberries on plenty a balmy summer day.
During the months I was let loose from long division and cursive writing charts, my mother worried about things like mosquito bites and sunburns. But for mothers of the 20 million children across the US who rely on free and reduced-price school lunches, summer doesn’t look like cookouts and pool parties, bug spray and sunblock. Being out of school means their kids are out of daily meals, and summer break brings worries of how to deliver food to their children’s plates each day. Lacking access to fresh and healthful options, these kids’ daily sustenance is too often buried at the bottom of an off-brand potato chip bag rather than in warm soil.
A Fresh Solution
In June of 2013, The McCormick Tribune YMCA in Chicago opened their 45-ft by 150-ft Active Green Space in order to extend access to healthy foods to the surrounding community, teach nutrition, and target chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. A project resulting from a partnership between the YMCA of the USA and the Walmart Foundation, the McCormick Tribune Y currently offers a Summer Food Camp for kids hosting 110 – 120 children daily in addition to its year-round kids camp encompassing about 80 daily participants. The collective group of 200 Chicago kids, ranging from ages 11 to 14, is gaining a progressively firmer grasp on healthy lifestyles through participation in various activities offered at the Active Green Space.
While the YMCA presently serves 900 sites nationwide through similar programs, senior director of the Walmart Foundation Julie Gehrki recognizes the major enrichment offered through the interactive curriculum at the Active Green Space in Chicago. Gehrki says that organized activities such as gardening, cooking demonstrations and nutrition classes are “not only making sure the kids are well-fed, but ready to thrive during the school year.” In addition to introducing campers to such hands-on opportunities and providing healthy daily snacks, the McCormick Tribune YMCA aims to strengthen the kids both physically and mentally through their educational green technology area and physical activity deck where yoga and tai chi classes are held for the camp participants.
Beginning as a small garden behind the Y building in 2012, The Active Green Space has evolved into its current thriving state and helps 100’s of youth participating in the Summer Food Program learn more about healthy eating thanks to donations from the Walmart Foundation. Today, the Active Green Space consists of four main sections–cooking herbs, medicinal herbs, strawberry garden and butterfly garden–and will be producing a diversity of produce including corn, peas, lettuce, tomato, eggplant, various peppers, kale, greens, broccoli, cucumbers and squash. Serving two low-income Chicago neighborhoods, Humboldt Park and Logan Square, where obesity rates are elevating and summer hunger is a painful reality, the McCormick Tribune YMCA hopes to fill nutritive gaps for the area’s children by teaching them to prepare salads, smoothies, and other recipes from the produce they have helped to grow. From learning horticulture basics to creating their own healthy dishes, kids at the Active Green Space are witnessing the significance of knowing where their food comes from on a daily basis.
Food for Growth
With the Active Green Space having been open and fully operating a mere couple of months, the McCormick Tribune Y team looks forward to seeing the Active Green Space blossom throughout the year to come. “Because it’s such a great space, I see huge potential for community collaboration,” Jackie Thurnau-Anderson says, Early Childhood and After-school Specialist at the YMCA of the USA. “Most importantly, we’re going to keep teaching nutrition and keep addressing chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes.”
The McCormick Tribune staff has already established partnerships with a number of the areas’ after-school programs and aims to continue developing local collaborations in order to reach as many families as possible. The Y estimates that 250 kids visit the Active Green Space every week. That’s 250 kids who are watching vegetation grow at their fingertips, 250 kids who are learning the importance and pleasures of preparing healthy meals, and 250 kids who have access to nutritious food this week alone. The kids and adult volunteers who have become involved in the McCormick Tribune Y’s Summer Food Camp are a solid example of how the YMCA of the USA’s overall goal of putting 4 million healthy snacks and meals in the hands of kids and teens throughout the summer is impacting communities around the country.
Through the $14 million distributed among five organizations including the YMCA, the Walmart Foundation has thus far impacted 1.7 million children as a part of their initiative to address hunger relief and nutrition. Gehrki explains that while the Walmart Foundation possesses the necessary resources, they rely on partnerships with groups like the YMCA of the USA in order to gain scale, innovation and, credibility within a community so that its needs can be best served. “By working with high-quality partners like the YMCA, we can provide healthy meals to these kids,” Gehrki says. Although children are the direct recipients in programs like the McCormick Tribune YMCA’s Summer Food Camp, the goal is to ultimately expose entire families to fresh meals that can be prepared on a tight budget.
“Through these programs, we aim for initial impact and behavior change over time,” Gehrki says.
According to Thurnau-Anderson, the accounts that have come back to the McCormick Tribune Y of their camp participants bringing new healthy habits along on a trip to the grocery store indicate that educating children can often spur a lifestyle change for their family. In addressing the hunger and nutritional issues that plague our nation, numbers and percentages matter. And every time a child asks for an apple over a bag of Cheetos that matters, too. When they identify radishes at the produce stand and tell Mom they know how to cook those, that matters. And when they can look back, years later, remembering the summer when they first learned how food grows and how juicy that first tomato plucked from the vine was, that’s sure going to matter.
The Following is a recipe used in a recent cooking demonstration for the kids at the Active Green Space provided by Chicago non-profit Faith in Place.
1 white onion
A bunch of collard greens
Dice the onion and sauté it in olive oil for 2 minutes. Add cumin to caramelize. In the meantime, thinly cut collard greens and dice tomatoes. Add collard greens to the mix until they wilt. Then add diced tomatoes and season with dry cilantro. Add a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar.