Eat, play, live

Fund afterschool programs for healthy lifestyles

OVER THE NEXT several weeks, funding for afterschool care will be among hundreds of line items considered as the Massachusetts Legislature hammers out the FY 2019 state budget. With the House recently completing debate on the budget, all eyes turn toward the Senate as it starts its own budget review and debate process. This is the time when we must fight to protect and expand essential programs to feed low-income students healthy meals and develop healthy habits.

Funding for these programs are critically important especially given the recent coverage that spotlights how public schools are falling short in providing healthy breakfast and lunch options to children throughout the Commonwealth. This news is distressing for families and working parents across the state, whose concerns around the health of their children extend beyond school hours and into afterschool and out-of-school time when children – especially in their early years – can start to adopt poor health habits related to nutrition and physical activity.

These factors have a negative impact on a child’s health, and have contributed to the rise in childhood obesity around the country and in Massachusetts. According to a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and the United States Department of Agriculture, the obesity rate among 2- to 4-year-old Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) participants was 16.6 percent from 2000-2014. This, in conjunction with the rate of Type-2 Diabetes going up nearly 30 percent in children from 2000 to 2009, according to a CDC-funded study, clearly shows that our children’s health and nutrition need to be taken seriously.

Afterschool programs, however, offer an effective tool to combat childhood obesity. Afterschool and Out-of-School time programming is a place for young people to learn in different and exciting environments while staying safe during unsupervised hours. Quality programs can develop social and emotional learning skills, boost academic achievement – and, of increasing importance, promote physical health.

Here in Massachusetts, afterschool and summer programs are a vital component of keeping a young person healthy. These children could be food insecure waiting for a dinner that they hope will come, or maybe they have just enough to grab a cheap bag of chips and soda to enjoy while sedentary and watching television or on the internet. Young people need to have access to exciting, productive and healthy alternatives. Alternatives that afterschool can provide.

Many afterschool programs exist as healthy spaces and offer a nutritious meal and/or a snack that a student might not otherwise be able to get; however, in order to increase access to high quality and healthy afterschool programs, Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards need to be adopted.

HEPA standards for afterschool programs involve three components: healthy eating, healthy beverages and physical activity. The healthy eating component consists of the need to serve a fruit or vegetable in addition to nutrient dense options while not serving candy, deep-fried food or fried salty snacks. Programs should have water accessible at all times and drinking other healthy beverages as opposed to sodas or juices with caloric sweeteners. Students should be given at least 30 minutes or 20 percent of their time to a variety of physical activities while limiting screen time.

The Massachusetts’ government has responded to young people’s public health concerns by implementing these types of standards for the school day in passing laws such as the “Act Relative to School Nutrition,” but they are only just starting to do the same for afterschool and out-of-school time programming. In this year’s state budget, the Legislature is proposing a Quality Rating Improvement System Technical Assistance line item. This line item would provide an additional $2.5 million to ensure that early education and out-of-school-time providers would receive technical assistance on HEPA standards, so their programs could be of the highest possible quality.

Meet the Author
A safe and supportive learning environment must address the whole child all the time. This includes their health. Poor nutrition leads to negative impacts on memory capacity, behavior and emotion regulation. A well-fed and healthy child acts better, is happier and will have better health outcomes later in their life. Given all the challenges that the Commonwealth is facing to support working parents in raising healthy children, providing adequate support and funding for HEPA Standards in afterschool and out-of-school time is more important than ever. We need the Legislature to take action to send a message to families across Massachusetts that the state is committed to this fight. 

Ardith Wieworka is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership. The Bright Futures Health Kids of MA campaign is a collaboration between the Massachusetts Alliance of YMCAs and the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership.