US libraries offer free lunch with summertime learning

Libraries have been serving federally funded summer meals to ensure children do not go hungry.
Libraries have been serving federally funded summer meals to ensure children do not go hungry. PHOTO: NYTIMES

ELMWOOD PLACE, OHIO (United States) • Before opening their doors at noon, the librarians squeeze tables and chairs between the book stacks to prepare for the onslaught of hungry children. Usually, two or three dozen show up but, occasionally, up to 70 do.

One recent Thursday, most of the pint-sized patrons signed up for free lunch even before reserving a computer. Older kids first beelined for the Internet, then wrote their names down to get the day's meal - macaroni with ground beef.

"We come Monday through Friday, unless there's an unforeseeable catastrophe," said Ms Lorrie Spraggins, 58, who lives nearby with her daughter and grandchildren.

"With eight people in this family, and five under 18, it really helps."

Librarians used to forbid any food or drink to avoid staining books and attracting pests. But in recent years, hundreds of libraries have been serving federally funded summer meals to ensure children do not go hungry.

The change is part of an effort to stay relevant to patrons and pair nutrition and educational activities so low-income children get summertime learning too.

Ms Enid Costley, the children's and youth services consultant for the Library of Virginia, said: "For kids to be well-read, they need to be well-fed. If they are worried about getting their next meal, it makes it harder to learn."

After lunch, Ms Danielle McFarland, the children's librarian at Elmwood Place, gave out robots designed for youngsters to program.

Local sponsors such as camps, operators of school feeding programmes and churches procure food to be prepared, get it delivered and handle most of the administrative tasks for reimbursement.

The meals are paid via the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) summer food service programme. Last year, it funded about 50,000 sites nationwide as a way to feed kids who rely on free or reduced meals during the school year.

That year, nearly four million children got roughly 179 million meals.

Since the 1970s, the USDA has tried to fill the gap by providing meals at sites such as camps, parks and YMCAs.

But transport can be a barrier for tapping on these programmes, as are the limited number of summer camps and activities for low-income kids, noted a report, Hunger Doesn't Take A Vacation, by the Food Research & Action Centre.

In July last year, summer meals served only one child for every seven low-income children who participate in free and reduced- cost lunch during the school year.

"Libraries are an exciting opportunity to increase access," said Ms Crystal FitzSimons, who wrote the report.

Librarians and anti-hunger advocates in California, Ohio, Virginia and New York reported sizeable increases in participation after a recruitment effort spread from state to state through webinars, librarian conferences and by word of mouth.

Last year, public libraries in California provided more than 203,000 meals for children at 139 sites, up from just 17 in 2013.

New York has more than 115 participating libraries this summer, compared with 36 in 2013, said Ms Misha Marvel, a child nutrition programmes specialist at Hunger Solutions New York.

"Libraries are a good fit," she said. "They are a non-stigmatising, community-accepted resource."

Put another way, going to a library is inconspicuous in a way that showing up at a food bank is not.

In some cases, summer meals are attracting new patrons.

"Our summer lunch effort has pushed more people into our libraries," said Ms Andie Apple, interim director of libraries for Kern County Libraries in California.

"They don't just come for the meals and leave. They come for meals and stay."

At Beale Memorial Library in Bakersfield, California, in addition to more than 3,000 meals served last summer, librarians also offered a Lego club, bilingual story time and creative time to doodle on paper-covered tables.

Some illustrators left notes for the librarians. "You can't believe some of the messages," Ms Apple said. "It'll break your heart. They'll write, 'Thank you for this meal.'"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2017, with the headline 'Free lunch at the library'. Print Edition | Subscribe