Lunch at the Library: Nourishing Minds and Stomachs with Meal Initiatives
Until recently, the only types of food seen inside public libraries were those found in the images of shelved cookbooks. Now, libraries across the country are serving up federally-funded summer meals to children in order to ensure they don’t go hungry. This new change in policy also helps ensure the library stays relevant to patrons and that low-income children continue to learn during the summer months by pairing nutritional meals with educational activities.
Many meals are paid for through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Summer Nutrition Programs in an effort to fill the gaps not reached since their efforts began in the 1970s. For example, the Food Research & Action Center, in their “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation” report, recounted that in 2016 the program only served one out of every seven low-income children who participated in free and reduced-cost lunches during the school year.
“Libraries are an exciting opportunity to increase access,” said Crystal FitzSimons, one of the authors of the report, in a New York Times article. “There’s a lot of energy around recruiting libraries to provide meals that’s happening at local, state and national levels.”
In 2014 the U.S.D.A. started recommending libraries as potential partners, including an online tool to connect them to sponsors. Now, representatives from California, Ohio, Virginia and New York all reported substantial increases in program participation after recruitment efforts began, including webinars, librarian conferences and word of mouth. California increased their public library site locations from 17 in 2013 to 139 in 2016. Ohio went from 88 to 133 in one year alone. And New York, which had only 36 libraries involved in 2013 now has more than 115 participating locations.
Local sponsors, like camps, school feeding programs and churches, make the process simple on libraries by obtaining, preparing and delivering the food. They also handle most of the administrative tasks and paperwork necessary for reimbursement.
“There’s a lot of energy around recruiting libraries to provide meals that’s happening at local, state and national levels.” Crystal FitzSimons, Co-Author of the "Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation" Report for the Food Research & Action Center
Libraries interested in starting a program in their community should check to make sure they first meet the eligibility requirements. A site’s location must be in an area where at least 50 percent of students receive free or reduced-priced meals at school. Look into your community’s census data to find out if this applies to your library. However, it’s good to note that any child can take advantage of the program once a site is running. Some participants of the program cite this lack of questioning and diversity of users as reasons the program isn’t as stigmatizing as a traditional free food program, and thus more likely to be used.
One group that isn’t included, however, is parents. The U.S.D.A.’s summer programs are only for kids 18 and under, but parents can bring their own food to eat with their children. So when Stanford University School of Medicine set out to determine if a library-based summer meal program could address food insecurity, they took a different approach by allowing both parents (or other adult guardians) and their children to receive the free meals. The result? The community-based approach not only addressed food insecurity, it bonded participating families.
“No one wanted to turn away hungry adults,” said Dr. Janice Bruce, director of the Pediatric Advocacy Program at the Stanford University School of Medicine, in a Paste article. “And parents or guardians were more likely to stay if they could eat with their children, creating a family atmosphere that the participants appreciated.”
Obviously finding funds to feed adults as well can be a major roadblock to creating a family-friendly program. But many think the benefits far outweigh the struggle. Because libraries are viewed by at-risk populations as trusted, open and welcoming places, those experiencing food insecurity found fewer barriers to the program than other resources. “Many times, they simply couldn’t find correct information, such as how to enroll,” says Monica De La Cruz, MPH, research assistant and manager of Stanford’s Pediatric Advocacy Program. “Then there were hurdles over eligibility requirements, social stigma, or immigration fears. Because libraries are seen as a community resource, they provide a safety net and hubs for accurate information… At a time when funding cuts are prevalent, this study shows the value of libraries as a community resource. They are so much more than a place to check out a book.”
“Our summer lunch effort has pushed more people into our libraries. They don’t just come for the meals and leave. They come for the meals and stay.” Andie Apple, interim director of libraries for Kern County Libraries
When children have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, it’s harder for them to learn. So many libraries not only provide opportunities for a full meal but also the chance to continue learning over the summer months.
Many libraries simply pair the mid-day meal with a storytime session. Elmwood Place in Cincinnati has been known to hand out tiny robots after lunch or demonstrate how a 3-D printer works. The Beale Memorial Library in Bakersfield, California, tacked on a Lego club, bilingual story time, make-it-yourself slime session, and creative time to their more than 3,000 meals last summer.
Librarians involved with the Stanford study also noted an increase in library material usage by adults and reported regular sightings of meal program participants in the library after its conclusion. Andie Apple, the interim director of libraries for Kern County Libraries in California said, “Our summer lunch effort has pushed more people into our libraries. They don’t just come for the meals and leave. They come for the meals and stay.”
Why not play a movie while your community enjoys lunch together? Here are our top picks for your lunchtime fix.