A few miles northeast of Atlanta, more than 3,700 elementary and middle school children took part in the Summer Camp Healthy Habits Program this past summer.
The program, run by Gwinnett County (Georgia) Parks and Recreation (GCPR), included weekly lessons for kids on topics such as healthy habits for the entire family, how to eat healthfully while dining out, the USDA’s MyPlate coloring tools, oral hygiene, germs, dehydration and food allergies. There were healthy doses of hands-on activities, sugar demonstrations revealing the amount of sugar in common drinks and snacks, and physical fitness challenges.
That rich menu of program offerings owes much to GCPR’s 2014 implementation of Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards in its summer program. The standards transformed a program built around standard summer camp activities into a focused program designed to educate campers and families on how to make low-fat food choices, eat high-fiber diets, drink more water and exercise regularly. “We’ve got two main goals with the program,” Lindsey Jorstad, GCPR Community Services Outreach Manager. “First, we want to help kids and their families get and stay healthy by reducing obesity rates, improving cardiovascular fitness, and boosting campers’ confidence and self-esteem. Second, we want to teach them how to be healthy for the rest of their lives.”
The program aims to reach beyond the campers, as well. Parents receive weekly “Strong4Life” tips by way of a take-home newsletter and they’re encouraged to pack at least one healthy lunch or snack item each day. Campers were also encouraged to bring a reusable water bottle every day and GCPR made sure they had constant and ready access to potable drinking water. This summer, GCPR expanded the program to include community partners, who came to camp to conduct a variety of wellness activities. The University of Georgia Extension program led hands-on recipe lessons; the Gwinnett County Public Library visited to get campers excited about summer reading; the Kaiser Educational Theatre of Georgia brought its puppet, Mumford the Dog, to talk about water safety; the American Red Cross educated campers on how to be prepared for emergencies; and the Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta ran summer long science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities that included Shaving Cream Rain Clouds, Crystal Stars, Magic Milk and Oobleck!
One of the most popular forms of exercise at GCPR’s camp is swimming, so with the goal of decreasing the number of aquatic-related emergencies, the camp offered swimming lessons to youngsters. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that the rate of drowning among African American children is nearly three times the rate for their white peers, and other research points to disparities in swimming ability among African American and Latino children. So GCPR gave free swimming lessons to more than 400 children this summer, most of them children of color.
“Our commitment to HEPA is threaded throughout the entire program,” says Tina Fleming, GCPR Director of Community Services, “and it’s made a huge difference in the work we do. We’d always been focused on physical activity, but HEPA added a layer of evidence-based intentionality to what we’re doing that helps guide us. And it also persuaded us to reach out more to parents, hoping to encourage year-round, healthy lifestyles at home – not just during the day at summer camp. It’s been a huge boost to our work.”