When it comes to food choices, children at the YMCA in Duluth, Minnesota, are probably a lot like kids everywhere. “The truth,” says Tracie Clanaugh of the Duluth Y, “is that we’re kind of swimming upstream. Kids want sugary snacks, and many aren’t used to eating vegetables. So we’re not just providing them with nutritious snacks and meals; we’re trying to teach them good habits.”
At the Duluth Y’s afterschool programs, that effort got a big boost from implementation of the Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards, making good on a commitment by national YMCA leadership to implement the standards at more than 2,700 Ys across the nation.
“In all the work we’ve done,” Clanaugh explains, “HEPA has raised our intentionality around health, nutrition and physical activity. Ys have always been healthy places; it’s who we are. And we moved toward achieving HEPA standards even before there were HEPA standards! But we’ve really appreciated that the new standards have provided that level of intentionality – giving us new tools and helping us think through the goals and the specifics for achieving them.”
At 13 sites across Duluth, Clanaugh’s Y branch operates afterschool programs in partnership with the local school systems. HEPA standards in hand, she and her team met with a district food service manager to work through an afternoon menu, and she says the standards allowed them to dig into the specifics. “In the past, that conversation might have resulted in granola bars and playground time,” she laments – snacks that were too sugary and physical activity time that was too unstructured. “The reality is that we want them to have protein, fruits, vegetables and a balanced snack.” She goes on to explain that HEPA standards have helped the Y find a balance between time on the playground for free play, and more active games that get children running around.
The Y programs also use the Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH) curriculum to help drive home the importance of healthy eating habits and regular physical exercise. It provides lesson plans, goal-setting and the context for one-on-one conversations with children about the importance of nutrition and physical activity.
Meanwhile, at an additional afterschool site, this one operated independently of the school district and located in a low-income housing development, the Y is supplementing its HEPA-based program with cooking clubs, family meals, a community garden and more. On a given day during the Y’s summer program, Clanaugh says, children will be served peapods, cherry tomatoes, carrots, broccoli – sometimes cooked in spaghetti sauce or steamed.
Clanaugh’s colleague, Chris Francis, CEO of the Duluth Y, explains that HEPA standards have also been introduced at the Y’s various summer camps. In addition, he says, “we have the chef come out and visit with the campers, talk about their food and explain that everything they eat that day is locally grown and sourced within a 30-mile radius of the camp. The kids love hearing about where the food comes from, and we’ve gotten really positive feedback from parents, as well.”
For both Clanaugh and Francis, the bottom line is that the HEPA standards have helped strengthen their program, building on the Y’s long history of providing opportunities for physical activity for children. “Afterschool and summer programs are a tremendous opportunity for learning and teaching,” Clanaugh says, “but none of that will happen if kids are hungry. So we meet that need, in a healthy way.”