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As Summer Nears, a Unified Anti-Obesity Campaign Emerges

Guest post by Ross Brenneman

The arguments over school food and nutrition rules this past year have centered on the health benefits of tomatoes and potatoes, but perhaps it's time to shift the focus beyond the cafeteria: research says that students are more likely to gain weight during summers at home than they do in school.

That finding (PDF) by researchers at Ohio State University came in 2007, but it was one of many pieces synthesized for a new report (PDF) issued by the National Summer Learning Association during its Healthy Summers Summit in Baltimore earlier this week.

The NSLA summit featured several panel discussions on current research, effective practices, and ways to find money and influence policy for summer programming. The summit, along with the report, are the jumping-off point for the NSLA's new campaign aimed at raising the profile of summer learning—a profile that, to hear the panelists describe it, is woefully low.

"Fewer than one in 10,000 studies focus on summer, and yet it's a quarter of the year," Joseph Mahoney, professor of education at University of California-Irvine, told the more than 50 attendees representing nonprofit organizations working on the issue.

The summer studies that do exist show youth who don't participate in organized activities and lengthy stays at sleepaway camp gain weight; children under parental supervision, especially those in low-income households, actually do the worst. Conversely, there are also major problems with food insecurity for children during summer. Only 1 in 7 of the low-income students who depended on the National School Lunch Program during the 2009-2010 school year had access to summer meals in 2010, according to a 2011 study (PDF) from the Food Research and Action Center.

How much of the problem with summer weight gain is attributed to diet rather than exercise levels isn't understood, although it's easy enough to imagine a bored 12-year-old lying sedentary in front of the television, snacking on peanut-butter pretzels while going through hours worth of "Top Chef" episodes.

(Been there.)

"We really don't understand what goes on during the summer for most kids," said panel moderator Marc Stein, an assistant professor of education at Johns Hopkins University.

Research is just one obstacle for summer learning. Other woes were on full display, as various audience members and panelists highlighted difficulties with food regulations, nonprofit cooperation, staff training and turnover (synergy alert: there's a webinar for that), community safety, public awareness of available programs, and federal support.

And, of course, funding.

"In Boston, there are more nonprofits than people," joked panelist Margaret McKenna, past president of the Walmart Foundation. She noted that funders were getting annoyed with the "300 nonprofits springing up every day."

To that end, the NSLA's campaign is seeking to bring such organizations together, not necessarily as a consortium so much as a politically savvier group with more influence in Washington. As panelist Kristy Anderson of the American Heart Association noted, there's no one agency at the federal level responsible for summer learning, and yet summer programs have stakes in several legislative decisions—not just in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act currently stalled in Congress, but even in farm and transportation bills (that are currently stalled in Congress).

The panelists recognize, however, that a multi-pronged approach will be necessary to fight summer health problems.

"There's no silver bullet. We need a silver buckshot," Anderson said.

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