Campers stay active and sharp with Second Harvest meals

Children should eat well enough to enjoy an active, carefree summer — but that’s not a given in as many as 20 percent of south Louisiana families.

That’s why, in 2010, Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana launched a program that now delivers breakfast and lunch to 63 metro camps and other sites where children gather in the warm months, said Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of Second Harvest.

“Unfortunately, summer is a particularly worrying time for childhood hunger,” Jayroe said. “The free and reduced lunch program is obviously not available to them during the summer. For many of these children, the school meals are the only meals they get during the day.”

At the Adventure Camp in eastern New Orleans, 143 children from age 4 through second grade get a nutritious breakfast and lunch every day thanks to the partnership with Second Harvest, said Cyndi Nguyen, executive director of Vietnamese Initiatives in Economic Training, which sponsors the camp.

Kids at Adventure Camp require a lot of energy, Nguyen said.

“They need a healthy breakfast because at our camp, we stay very active,” she said. The kids take part in an exercise program designed to head off obesity; they play on a nearby KaBoom playground and dart around the community center’s walking path; they ride bikes and run.

They also have an hour of academics every morning, and two hours of enrichment in science, art and more in the afternoon, she said.

To stay active and sharp, every camper gets the Second Harvest meals — there’s no income-testing. However, Nguyen said the need in her community is great.

“We’ve been running this camp for 12 years,” she said. Before the partnership with Second Harvest, “we struggled with kids that came to camp with no food.”

She’s grateful that hungry youngsters can get what they need.

“You have some kids who have big appetites,” said Nguyen, who is herself the mother of six children. “And that’s one good thing about Second Harvest. Children can come back for seconds. And we know that sometimes the family is struggling at home.”

Increasingly, the problem of hunger in the United States is being understood as a problem of nutrition, Jayroe said. Second Harvest meals are designed to appeal to children, but they use healthy ingredients.

“These are individually packaged, very nutritious meals,” she said. “We don’t do anything like fried chicken fingers. We try to do brown rice and whole-wheat bread, but also try to keep it fun for the kids.” One recent meal: black beans and brown rice, sausage, greens, a corn muffin and fresh fruit.

“We get really excited when the children will say to us things like ‘Tilapia is our favorite lunch.’ We hope we are giving children the ability to try food that is not readily available to them at home,” Jayroe said. “Often very nutritious food is very expensive food. If families have to cut their food budget, they often have to cut the fresh fruit and vegetables.”