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Students Start the School Year Strong Thanks to Summer STARS

By: Sonia Fernandez-Arana, MA

  • Thursday, September 23, 2021
  • 3 Minute Read   


Summer is a time for children to explore and discover, creating memories and gaining life experience outside the classroom. Unfortunately, for many families summer brings uncertainty as students experience food insecurity and lack affordable enrichment activities. The time away from school can also lead to “summer slide,” a learning loss that hinders the academic progress students made during the regular school year, particularly for children living in marginalized and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. However, a new collaborative program in Sacramento and Yolo counties offers a solution.

To support students and help them avoid summer slide, Dairy Council of California partnered with Community Housing Opportunities Corporation (CHOC) and United Way California Capital Region (United Way) to host Summer STARS, a program to empower healthier students by keeping them nourished, educated and engaged with reading while on summer break. The result: students who are mentally and physically prepared to resume school. 

Blog_SummerSTARS_Image1Reinventing the summer experience to fuel learning

Research shows that students living in food-secure and affluent households advance academically by one month during the summer, while students in more vulnerable situations are disproportionally affected by summer slide, with experts showing as much as two to three months of regression.

CHOC, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, saw an opportunity to support its young residents by providing nourishing foods and enrichment activities over the summer months. In partnership with Dairy Council of California and United Way, Summer STARS was launched to ensure children and families were able to access healthful foods—including milk and dairy foods, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein—and educational activities, including nutrition education to build knowledge around healthy eating. Community connection is critical to delivering effective and culturally relevant services, and the Summer STARS program meets families where they live, work and play, providing free resources to empower healthier students, families and communities. 

“Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic school year has brought on learning and achievement gaps for kids. Providing young CHOC residents with continuous learning opportunities like Summer STARS matters and makes a difference,” said Terri Smyth, Director of Family and Youth Services at CHOC. 

Making a Difference 

More than 40 students participated in Summer STARS at five CHOC locations. Powered by BookNook, students were actively engaged in 58 hours of summer tutoring, totaling 272 literacy tutoring sessions. Let’s Eat Healthy science-based nutrition resources educated 175 students across seven CHOC locations, providing enrichment activities that reinforced reading and writing while also teaching nutrition literacy and building essential life skills. Through nutrition education, students were able to continue learning and establish eating habits for lifelong health. 

Blog_SummerSTARS_Image2Summer STARS participants successfully completed 46 language arts standards, gaining 10 reading levels collectively. Individually, students gained an average of half a reading level or more, a finding shared by United Way. 

“Providing children with access to nutritious foods and enriching activities like nutrition education and summer reading enables them to fuel their bodies and minds while school is out of session,” said Tracy Mendez, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Program Director of Nutrition Education at Dairy Council of California. “When students learn how to make healthy eating decisions and experience healthy meals that include the recommended servings of milk and dairy, fruit and vegetables, whole grains and proteins, it helps them gain lifelong knowledge and confidence in their ability to nourish their bodies for optimal growth and development.”   

School meals play an important role in supporting healthier students. During summer months, families may not have access to the foods they need to be nourished and fed. Fortunately, summer meals are able to fill in the gap, providing students with access to the nourishing foods they need for optimal growth and development.   

In Sacramento County, Summer STARS partnered with Elk Grove Unified School District and Natomas Unified School District, two strong community advocates that provided and distributed the free summer meals.  

“By fueling students’ bodies, their minds are also fueled to learn, with evidence showing improved levels of academic achievement and performance, behavior, cognitive skills and attitudes, and overall health,” adds Mendez.  

Collaboration Empowers Healthier Students and Communities

Successfully improving the health of children and communities requires collaboration, and Summer STARS is a testament to the successes that can be achieved through shared values and resources. 

To achieve more successes, educators, health and community professionals and advocates for healthier communities are invited to join the Let’s Eat Healthy movement. Through shared values, Let’s Eat Healthy aims to champion the health of children and families through nutrition education and access to nutritious foods that enable children, families and communities to thrive. 

Learn how you can take small steps to inspire healthier students and communities at HealthyEating.org/Join. Together we can make a big difference in the lives of children and families by educating and equipping them with the knowledge, tools and resources needed to improve health.


Sonia Fernandez-Arana, MA

Sonia Fernandez-Arana, MA

Sonia is the Let’s Eat Healthy Program Manager and leads the activation and advancement of the Let’s Eat Healthy Initiative.

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