Eat Up! 5 Public Libraries' Successful Summer Meals Programs

Last summer, Nina Lindsay was walking through the Oakland Public Library (OPL) where she works when she saw what she describes as "the best kind of trash." On the floor was a peach pit sucked bone dry.
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Last summer, Nina Lindsay was walking through the Oakland Public Library (OPL) where she works when she saw what she describes as "the best kind of trash." On the floor was a peach pit sucked bone dry. It had been served for lunch earlier that day, and for Nina the image of that pit serves as a reminder of the importance of the library's summer meals program.

This is not just happening in Oakland. Libraries around the country are starting similar initiatives. During the school year, 22 million kids receive a free or reduced price lunch at school according to Lucy Melcher, the Associate Director of Advocacy for Share Our Strength; but during the summer months, those numbers drop dramatically. Only 1 in 6 of those kids gets that meal when school is out. These programs are designed to change that.

"The biggest challenge we hear from organizations operating the summer meals program is that it doesn't provide enough options to reach kids in hard to reach areas," Lucy told me. Libraries can reach eligible children who are not getting their summer meals. "Libraries were a hidden gem. They are a natural place in the community where kids are already congregating during the summer. They have great spaces to provide meals in a fun environment for kids. Libraries are also trusted places in their communities and have the ability to do outreach through schools and other community organizations about the summer meals program."

Hearing about these amazing programs got me excited and I wanted to hear more. So I spoke with five public libraries about their summer meal sites. It was inspiring to learn what they were doing, how these programs were growing--and especially to hear the feedback from children and families who have benefited. Here are a few of the things they told me:

Photo Credit: Sharon McKellar, Oakland Public Library

The demand is there and the number of meals served is increasing yearly.
Without fail, every librarian I spoke with has seen these programs grow exponentially. In OPL's first year, they hosted lunch at three locations, expanding to 10 the second year; now they do it at every library that has an obvious need in the surrounding neighborhood. Nina told me that in many libraries, they serve 70 lunches an hour and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The Saint Louis County Library (SLCL) started the program last year at 3 branches, serving over 8,500 meals. This year, with an additional branch added, they expect to serve 10,000. Greg Edwards at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (PLCHC) says they've grown from 8,800 meals in 2012 to 18,500 in 2014!

Eva Mitnick from the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) had her doubts at first, even though there was a clear need for the program. "I was worried that we wouldn't get very many families on the first day, since it sometimes takes a while for word to spread about library programs." She and her colleagues were surprised to open their doors to a long line of moms, kids, and babies. And there are many repeat customers. "They have fond memories not just of the food but of the librarians reading and playing with the kids." Last year they served over 10,000 meals from 10 sites. This year they expect to serve at least 15,000.

Photo Credit: Los Angeles Public Library

Libraries are missing something important: a stigma.
While other summer meal sites are doing tremendous work, some people feel there's more of a negative connotation attached to them. To some, it might be embarrassing to admit you need help. But at the library, says Annisha Jeffries from the Cleveland Public Library (CPL), "we're a safe space. We have the programming, the computers, the technology, the magazines, everything you need to entertain children. Why not have the lunch for them?"

Kristen Sorth from SLCL described the library as a place that is alleviating summer stress for parents in general, where kids have fun, stay cool, and enjoy free lunch, without fanfare or any sort of stigma. As Paula from CPL says, "Many of the kids are going be here anyway. They're there before and after lunch. So while they're there, they eat lunch. There is no big sign that says 'free lunches here for those who need them.' It's just there for everyone."

Eva from LAPL agrees. "School age kids are a large percentage of kids who take advantage. When you're 9 or 10, it's less of an issue for you to get free lunch if you can say you're there for the activity. Kids may live in a food poor home, but at the library with other kids, they don't have to emphasize the fact that they're there for the food."

While the lack of stigma is naturally real for libraries, all of those with whom I spoke have gone many steps further to make this true. Says Annisha, "at the neighborhood branches, parents know the staff. They know the librarians and the branch manager, so it's all about trust. You see these children every day, so you get to know them and because of that, they can tell you, 'I'm hungry. I would like something to eat.'"

Photo Credit: Saint Louis County Library

Libraries are integrating meals into their other summer programs.
All five libraries I spoke to told me how they have adjusted existing programs to accommodate summer lunches. The 10am storytime hour often moves to 11 in the summer so it can finish right at lunchtime. On OPL's summer learning site, summer lunches are boldly promoted right next to the seasonal reading challenges. The summer reading camp at PLCHC is targeted at kids who need help building literacy skills--many of whom also need meals. So now they scheduled the camp to end right when summer lunches are delivered.

Many libraries offer open-ended activities for families to do while lunch is served. At any time, you might find kids building Lego creations, crafting with beads, or playing with play dough. This year SLCL added a local performer, Bobbaloo, to entertain the kids while they ate.

Branch librarians are also adding new post-lunch activities to encourage families to stay and engage with the library. "After they eat, we guide kids to the puppet theater, help them conduct science experiments, and sign them up for summer reading," Eva told me. "It makes the library a true community gathering place." In addition, LAPL is providing free eye exams and eyeglasses. This holistic approach to summer--mind and body--is one that truly acknowledges the library's patrons and the system's role in serving as a community center for all.

Photo Credit: Saint Louis County Library

The feedback from community members is amazing. Really.
Most library summer meal sites offer surveys to participants. Nina from OPL says for the most part, "kids always complain about the food. For example, 'you only serve milk, I don't like the green tortillas,' things like that. There are always comments about how they wish the food was better. And always following those are effusive thanks for doing this program and saying, 'don't ever take it away.'"

Here are some direct quotes from LAPL and OPL from parents and kids. I love how they connect the meals with books, activities, and most importantly, with people.
  • I love it!! It's like my second home. :D
  • Thank you main library for giving my child and I an adventure every time!!
  • NUN it's DOPE!
  • Keep it forever.
  • Dar gracias por los almuerzos y que dios los bendiga siempre. (Thank you for the lunch and God bless you always.)
  • It is good and I like when people can meet and maybe meet friends and get to know more people.
  • The library is huge and awesome and the lunch of the lunch program is yummy.
  • The food at the lunch program is tasty! The library has a lot of interesting books.
  • I like the fact that lunch is offered at the library. Although parks serve lunch indoors sometimes children want to play in the playground but it's hot and the library is fresh and safer environment. Hope next year it is offered at the library again.
  • Me gusto porque esta saludable. El horario me gusto. Le agradesco por tener a mis hijos un desayno y espero proximo ano tambien. (I like it because it's healthy. I like the schedule. I'm grateful that my children get fed and I hope you do this again next year.)
  • The program is lucrative to the community and I have observed several situations that were defused by a warm meal and a smile on a face! The economy has played a horrible game with many of us and a program of such is a true blessing! Thank you.

Kristen from SLCL shared this beautiful letter with me. They received it a few months before summer this year. Truly, it speaks volumes for itself:

Annisha shared a poignant moment that happened last month with a mom and her baby:

One mom passing by had her baby in a stroller. I heard her say, "Okay, let's go down to the vending machine and get something." I told her, "You know, we serve lunches here. We have some extra lunches today. Would you like one for you and your daughter?" She told me, "Thank you, because otherwise, we're going to have to eat from the vending machine."

Parents are so grateful for this. Parents have been very vocal and very appreciative. It's not like this is a handout. This is helping our community...we help feed their souls, their minds, and their bodies. We want to do everything we can to make sure our patrons get everything they and their children need."

I remember a conversation with Valerie Gross, director at Howard County Library, one of our partner libraries. She said she was tired of hearing people wondering how libraries are going to remain relevant. She believes that libraries should be making that question itself irrelevant. Integrating with the community around you, and making it unquestionable that libraries are needed as partners in education, literacy, job preparedness, and much more.

The libraries offering lunches on site are doing this exactly. These programs exemplify the role they now play in supporting the community around them, and how they can nurture family engagement in so many different formats. Eva from LAPL said, "what we at the library love about summer lunch is that it gives us a chance to interact with families in a very informal, positive way. While kids are eating, we chat with parents and parents chat with each other." Libraries, and librarians, are deepening those connections to their community members, especially those who may not have a voice in so many other settings.

"Lunch provides a natural foundation for everything we're doing," Eva told me. "All summer long we're working with kids who are hungry. They're in the library for hours and hours, and we see they're not going out to eat. We know the need is there. Serving lunch says, 'we acknowledge and support you.' It's a lot of work, but it makes so much sense. And makes the summer landscape of the library a little more common sense and meaningful."

Does your library serve lunch? What has been your experience with lunch at the library? Share your stories with me @zoobeanforkids!

All photos used with permission.

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