Blogger Renee Grassi

Serving the Underserved: Lunch at the Library

hunger-in-america1-300x300There are many ways for us to serve the underserved in our library communities.  Whether we provide outreach in local preschools or daycares, visit incarcerated youth, or serve children with disabilities, outreach is a crucial part of inclusive library service.  This summer, we at the Glen Ellyn Public Library served–quite literally–children with a different type of need.

Food for Thought

Here’s a brief look at some statistics and information about hunger in our  communities.  The numbers might surprise you.

  • According to the USDA in a 2013 study, 49 million people in the US live in homes that are “food insecure” — meaning that they do not always have access to adequate amounts of food to maintain an active, healthy lifestyle.
  • 1 in 8 Americans rely on help from food banks each year.
  • 20% of households with children and 9% of elderly people living alone are food insecure.
  • In 2012, 16.1 million or approximately 22% of children in the U.S. lived in poverty.
  • Good nutrition, particularly in the first three years of life, is important for establishing a good foundation that has implications for a child’s future physical and mental health, academic achievement, and economic productivity.  In other words, healthy bodies mean healthy minds.

Summer Reading, Summer Eating

Last summer, our library launched their 2013 Summer Reading Program entitled Read to Feed.  Children of all ages were encouraged to keep track of the number of hours they read during the summer.  Not only did they read to accomplish an individual goal, but a community wide goal was set, challenging all of the kids to read 70,000 hours throughout the course of the summer. In response to the community’s commitment to reach their reading goal, the local Rotary Club committed to making a donation to the local food pantry, providing funding to feed 500 local individuals.  This year, when the idea came up of having the library participate in the Summer Meals program, sponsored by the Northern Illinois Food Bank (NIFB), we felt that this would naturally coincide and continue with the mission of last year’s summer reading program.

After evaluating our school district’s free and reduced lunch statistics, we realized that we qualified to offer free summer meals in our library community.  The NIFB made a site visit in preparation for the summer meals program, providing the required training for staff that would supervise the program.  In addition, our School Liaison shared the news with various community contacts, making sure that the word got out to the families that needed the most.  And so, for several weeks throughout the summer on Mondays through Fridays from 12 – 1 pm, the library was an open site, serving free boxed lunches to children 18 and younger.

Hungry for Connection

The main focus of this program was to provide healthy, well-balanced lunches to children free of charge.  However, soon after we launched the program, we noticed something else significant happen.  Our library has a group of kids who use our building as a safe haven during the summer months.  They may have working parents that are not home, so often times, they stay for hours on end utilizing our collections and our services.  In some cases, these children might not have anywhere else to go.  And once the Summer Meals program began, we observed a change  in some of those kids.  Some of these kids began to open up to us even more than usual, interacting with staff and starting conversation.  In some cases, even our rapport with the children’s caregivers grew as well.  We were able to connect with new families that have never utilized the library before, promoting the library and all of its services.  We also served some of the families that already were regular library users.  It may have been the summer lunches that initially drew families to the library, but I do think that it was the personal connection with staff that kept them coming back.

In A Nutshell

Think about how this program fits in with your library’s mission.  What might be the added value of a program like this in your library community?  The first step would be to determine and evaluate your school district’s free and reduced lunch statistics.  If your community qualifies, reach out to a local food pantry or food bank to see if there is a comparable program in your area.

You may also want to consider the cost and the impact of a program like this.  The main cost to the library is not the cost of food; boxed lunches are delivered daily free from the food bank.  The primary cost is staff time.  Staff would be needed to be available to set up and clean up the room, monitor the room during the hour-long program, communicate with the food bank about delivery times and number of lunches delivered, and make sure that the proper documentation is in place.  Once that is taken care of, the program runs quite smoothly.  The impact, though, can be much greater.  While many of us promote reading programs during the summer, the fact is that food insecurity could be inhibiting some children from being able to primed for learning and reading.  A child that does not have access to quality and well-balanced meals may not be as mentally equipped or motivated to read.  And with a program like summer meals, the library can help serve that need.

 

If you are heading to Oakland next month for the 2014 ALSC Institute and want to learn more about how to implement a summer lunch program at your library, be sure to check out Summer Lunch at the Library  presented by the California Summer Meal Coalition, the California Library Association, and the amazing staff from the Sacramento, Fresno County, Oakland, and Los Angeles Public Libraries.  For more information about the upcoming 2014 ALSC Institute, click here!

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