Childhood obesity is widely recognized as a significant problem in the U.S., where approximately one in three children ages 2 to 19 is overweight or obese. Despite heightened attention to children’s physical fitness, the nation still struggles with reversing this trend. RTI is supporting efforts to implement standards for healthy eating and physical activity that have been adopted by several national after-school programs.
Finding Opportunities in After-School and Other Programs to Promote Healthy Habits
Any push to fight childhood obesity on a national level faces the challenge of reaching millions of diverse children and the adults who care for them.
After-school and other out-of-school time programs offer a promising venue for promoting a healthy lifestyle. Beginning in 2009, some of the nation’s leading providers of after-school care, along with children’s advocacy groups and a handful of researchers, came together to promote healthy eating and physical activity in programs that take place outside of the school day. The group became known as the Healthy Out-of-School Time (HOST) Coalition.
Standards for Healthy Eating and Physical Activity in Out-of-School Programs
Drawing on members’ expertise in children’s health and nutrition, along with knowledge of the inner workings of after-school programs, in 2011 the HOST Coalition created a set of standards for after-school programs looking to encourage healthier habits. Shortly thereafter, the standards were adopted by the National AfterSchool Association (NAA), the leading professional organization in the field. The HOST Coalition has since focused on promoting implementation of the standards.
The NAA Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Standards aim to translate science into practical, comprehensive guidance for out-of-school time programs. In addition to describing ideal components of snacks, meals, and physical activity, they describe how to support and sustain healthy environments through additional standards to guide development of program infrastructure.
As programs and institutions across the country adopt the standards, RTI is helping evaluate their efforts. We serve as a third-party evaluator to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, another nonprofit member of the HOST Coalition that works against childhood obesity with the help of private philanthropies. In FY2015, we evaluated the Alliance’s work in more than 300 programs in eight U.S. communities and the State of Kansas as a whole. With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we also helped monitor uptake of the standards among NAA members. In addition, we are documenting efforts to adopt the standards at the National Recreation and Park Association and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America on behalf of the Partnership for a Healthier America.
Leaders of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation praised us for the scientific rigor and clear communication that are part of our evaluation process. Our partnership helps the Alliance create a quality program and secure funding to reach more children.
“More and more funders are asking for the measure of a program’s impact,” said Anne Ferree, vice president for strategic alliances for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. “Without that insight into what moves the needle, they would not give as generously, or they might not renew a grant.”
“This is evaluation in its best form,” said Alliance CEO Howell Wechsler, noting that the lucid, insightful style of RTI’s evaluation reports sets us apart from the crowd.
Extending the Reach of HOST Coalition Standards to 13 Million U.S. Children
The out-of-school time standards for healthy eating and physical activity developed by the HOST Coalition are in use among many member organizations that are direct service providers. Currently, programs led by HOST Coalition members that are using the standards serve over 13 million children. For example, the YMCA has been using them since 2011, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the National Recreation and Park Association are both engaged in multi-year initiatives to implement organization-specific adaptations of the standards.
As the HOST Coalition and others champion the NAA standards, our team will continue to conduct research and evaluation on their adoption and implementation and actively support national dissemination efforts.