Over the past few years, there has been a growing awareness in public libraries that children within their service areas may not be getting enough to eat during the summer months when school breakfasts and lunches are unavailable. Many libraries have partnered with state and local organizations to address this “food insecurity” by offering summer food programs, but this may seem like a daunting enterprise for small, rural, and/or understaffed libraries.
Caroline County Public Library, one of eight rural Maryland libraries that my organization serves, began offering a summer food program last year. I decided to interview Amanda Courie, Youth Services Manager, to find out how this kind of program can work on a smaller scale.
Amanda, I understand that Caroline County Public Library is a small system. How many full time staff members are there? How many of them work in youth services?
“We are a small system! We serve a county of about 33,000 people on Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore. We operate a Central Library and two small branches. There are 15 FT employees and 8 PT. I am the only one who works full time in Youth Services. I have one FT employee who is our Early Childhood Unit Manager; about 50% of her time is in Youth Services, and 50% is spent staffing the branches and the Information Desk. Then there are three PT employees who contribute to Youth Services along with staffing our public service points.”
How does your summer food program work, and what made you decide to launch it?
“Our decision to launch the summer food program grew from a growing awareness nationwide and in our county of the number of families facing food insecurity. According to the MD Food System Map, produced by Johns Hopkins University, 40.2% of children in our county qualify for free lunch, and 11.1% of the total population is considered food insecure
We know that children rely on school meals throughout the school year, and that summertime is a big challenge for families who are food insecure. Our local Parks and Recreation Department runs summer camps throughout the county for five weeks out of the summer, and these sites double as Summer Meals Sites. Our concept was to help fill in the gaps not covered by this program, both for the other five weeks of summer vacation, and for the children who weren’t enrolled in the summer camps and couldn’t make it to those sites.
Looking at our resources, especially as far as having a small staff, we decided to serve an afternoon snack at our Central Library, Monday-Friday at 2PM, for 10 weeks in the summer.”
Which organization(s) do you partner with to make this program possible? Has this program led to any new partnerships?
“We partner with our local school system, Caroline County Public Schools. They make all of the registration and reimbursement arrangements with MSDE (Maryland State Department of Education), who in turn participates in the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program We received training from our school system’s food service program to ensure that we were following USDA guidelines. They also prepared the menus for us, making sure that we were meeting the federal nutrition guidelines. Once a week I picked up food and drinks from the food service workers at an elementary school about a mile from the library. The school system handled all financial aspects of the program; there was no cost to the library and very little paperwork.
We have partnered with our school system on many projects before, and we even share an ILS with them, so I can’t say that this program led to new partnerships. But it certainly enriched the partnership we do have with them, and they were happy to assist us in our efforts to serve nutritious snacks to children over the summer.”
What have been the benefits and drawbacks of the program? Have there been any surprises?
“When we went into the program, we assumed that the biggest benefit would be that kids who otherwise wouldn’t have access to a healthy snack over the summer would be able to come to the library and get it. That certainly has proven to be true. However, the biggest surprise, and another big benefit, has been the enhanced connections that we have formed with the kids who eat snack daily. In most cases, these are library “regulars” who spend a large part of their summer at the library. In past years, inevitably they grow restless by early afternoon are were often asked to leave for the day due to behavior issues—being too loud; running; fighting with each other. However, when we started serving snack every day, we noticed a drop in behavior issues. Early on, we made a practice of sitting with the kids while they ate, chatting and getting to know them. These connections proved to be invaluable in providing a positive library experience for them over the summer. Now, whenever I’ve seen these kids in the library during the school year—even last fall—they ask if we are serving snack again this summer.
I will be honest about the drawbacks of the program. Since we do partner with the USDA Summer Meals program, we must follow their very stringent guidelines on both what to serve and how to serve it. There is no flexibility to offer kids a variety of choices, or to give hungrier kids “seconds”. All participating children must receive one of each item offered to make a nutritionally complete snack. If they don’t eat it, it can go on the “share table”, but after that if no one takes it by the end of snack time, it must be discarded. While we understand these guidelines, it was still difficult to get used to this procedure. However, we decided that partnering with this program was the only sensible way for us to serve safe, approved, subsidized snacks to children.”
Do you have any advice for libraries who are interested in starting summer food programs (especially other small and rural libraries)?
“I would encourage libraries, particularly small, rural libraries, to look into partnering with an agency who is familiar with USDA guidelines and enthusiastic about extending Summer Meals services to more sites. I would also recommend planning to offer a summer food program that is realistic with the staffing levels available. Summer is already an extremely busy time of year for library staff, so offer a program on scale with your resources. Having said that, we have found that our summer meal program is extremely rewarding and helps fill the summertime gap for children in our community facing food insecurity.”
To find out more about offering a summer food program in your library, contact your local school system, or reach out to your statewide USDA School Meals liaison.
Rachael Stein is the Information Services Manager at Eastern Shore Regional Library in Salisbury, MD.