Photo courtesy of the Missouri Environmental Education Association and was taken on July 2 at the Saint Louis Zoo.

Partners Collaborating to Provide Outdoor Learning Kits, Exploration, Wonder and Joy via COVID-19 Emergency Food Relief

By Ranen Miao
Community Investment Intern

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students have been stuck indoors in compliance with social distancing regulations. That’s the problem a new project by the Missouri Environmental Education Association (MEEA) is trying to solve.

Missouri Foundation for Health facilitated this project by connecting MEEA with Operation Food Search and St. Louis County Libraries to pilot outdoor, nature-based learning kits to be included with food relief efforts. The St. Louis Community Foundation provided funding for this initiative through a newly established endowed fund that supports environmental education programs.

The project will be offering 6,300 learning kits to St. Louis County families across the months of July and August, distributed through ten St. Louis County Library sites in neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19. These sites were already designated based on their proximity to underserved communities and were already distributing food in partnership with Operation Food Search.

There are 18 organizations partnering with MEEA, including: Missouri Environmental Education Association, Missouri Foundation for Health, St. Louis County Libraries, Operation Food Search, St. Louis Zoo, Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Missouri 4-H, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Gateway Greening, Earthways Center of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Way 2 Fresh Eats, Urban Harvest STL, Greenscape Gardens, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, O.K. Hatchery, North American Association for Environmental Education, all of which bring diverse expertise and resources to the project.

“I’m blown away by the enthusiastic response of so many partners so quickly,” said Lesli Moylan, director of the MEEA. “We’re all so happy to have a tangible way to make a positive difference for kids who are going through so much right now. This collaborative project will help bring the joy of nature to many families this summer, and I’m very grateful to Operation Food Search and St. Louis County Libraries for providing our distribution pathway.”

These learning kits are offering the opportunity for students to engage their minds, move their bodies and experience the healing effects of time spent in nature. They also offer joy and solace to families and children who are experiencing chronic stress as quarantine extends into its fourth month.

“Research has shown time in nature enhances one’s mental and physical health, so we are confident this partnership will help many people benefit from discovering nature,” explained Shawn Gruber, Education Section Chief for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

If the program is successful, it has the potential to be scaled over the next few months to rural and Spanish-speaking communities. This fall, the content of the kits (including an activity guide and suggested materials) will be available for free online at meea.org.

Many of the project’s partners are enthusiastic about its future: in the words of Louise Bradshaw, the Fred Saigh Director of Education at the St. Louis Zoo, “I know these kits will provide many wonderful learning opportunities this summer.”

For more information on how to help support this initiative, visit meea.org or contact Lesli Moylan, Director of the Missouri Environmental Education Association. .