The end of the academic year can be a time of mixed emotions for those in the public education system. Social construct would have us believe that everyone is eagerly waiting for that last bell to ring with visions of summer vacations and adventures. The reality for many, however, is the increase of stress and financial challenges as the supports offered during the academic year disappear for the summer months. Food insecurity, summer learning loss and lack of safe supervision during the summer months are major concerns facing many school districts and families at the end of each year. These challenges can be exacerbated in rural communities with fewer resources and little to no transportation options.
The Broome County Promise Zone implemented a county-wide, university-assisted community school model to “Summer Zones,” a model that connects middle school, high school and college-level students. In the rural community of Whitney Point. N.Y. — which spans more than 140 square miles with no public transportation — school administration, community partners and creative thinking, has lead to unique partnerships for a six week learning opportunity that feeds body, mind and heart of each participant. The journey began three years ago when the Whitney Point school district approached Broome County Promise Zone with a request to help start summer learning programs. Partnering with a long standing community agencies and the school district, a summer program that connected middle school children to educational opportunities — while providing families with the peace of mind knowing their children were safe and fed for six weeks out of the summer, was born.
Since its inception, the Summer Zone in this rural community has begun to look at summer learning in a very different light. Not only are educational activities and events planned and implemented, a model of mentoring is established with middle school students serving as participants while their high school peers are employed as youth mentors through the use of state-funded workforce program. An additional layer of support to the children and families are the college students who also volunteer and work at the Summer Zones, serving as role models to the participants helping to instill the children’s own pursuit of higher education. The university-assisted model also uses college visits and access to university faculty, who share their love for learning and empower the participants through career preparation. Although exciting and enriching, this model is being utilized in many areas throughout the country. The Broome County Promise Zone’s innovative model also focuses on addressing community and summer hunger.
Every Tuesday morning throughout the summer, there is a multi-colored, produce-painted school bus parked on Main Street, which belongs to a county-wide hunger outreach program. It spends two hours a week in this rural community, offering fresh produce at little to no cost. The Summer Zone participants greet the bus as it drove into town, offering them access to different fruits and veggies on a weekly basis. The participants also distribute the fresh produce through the community, giving them an opportunity to learn more about healthier lifestyle habits and build relationships with their fellow community members.
For their services, each week students were given a large box of food to take home to their families. The food was donated by the hunger outreach program as a gesture of gratitude for the student’s civic duties and commitment to their community. This bartering system was put into place to provide families with another source of food support during the summer months. This system was also strategically implemented to help eliminate the stigma associated with accepting the food boxes while at camp. In addition, it was an opportunity for students to feel empowered for their service. Throughout the camp, students expressed that the approach allowed for them to feel invested, capable and useful — rather than needy and helpless.
Family engagement is a key component of the community school model. During recruitment for camp, a community school coordinator purposefully informs families about the food bus and the USDA Summer Food Lunch service that would be offered onsite at camp. For the families of students who attended camp, it became obvious that they were more likely to utilize the food bus and come and use the USDA Summer food site because they wanted to share in child’s summer camp experience. Families would walk down and purchase produce from the bus or walk down and have lunch with their camper. For the parents who couldn’t make it onsite, they would often send some extra change in for their students to purchase some items from the food bus. Funding granted to the food bus from a local financial institution specifically allowed for hundreds of lunches to be purchased, through the USDA program, that were sent home with campers once a week. Statistics show that in New York State, only 1 out of every 4 children who receive free or reduced price meals during the school year continue to receive meals during the summer months (Food & Health Network of South Central, New York, 2015). This is why it is so crucial for this rural summer enrichment programs to partner with the local food outreach programs to combat summer hunger.
Summer programs are essential to the healthy development of young people, especially in the context of the growing problem of childhood obesity. Studies show that children’s weight increases and fluctuates are higher rates during the summer than during the school, year, due to lack of access to nutritious meal and snack options and opportunities to participate in physical activities (New York State Afterschool Network, 2015). As we begin to plan for Summer Zone this year, much of the health and wellness curriculum focuses on supporting summer hunger through community partnerships. The holistic development of the youth in this rural community is a necessity, as we help to feed their minds, through their bellies. This summer, participants will be volunteering their time again with the food bus. They will also be volunteering with a new CSA, Farm Share Program that is coming to this rural town, helping to distribute farm shares each week and cook meals at camp from their very own farm share. The cooking lessons will be offered by a local non-profit food and health program. Students will also attend a field trip at the local farm, where the produce is harvested, giving students a real farm-to-table experience.
-Luann Kida, community schools director at Broome County Promise Zone, and Colleen Cunningham Rozelle, community schools coordinator and research assistant at Broome County Promise Zone