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Feeding Hungry Minds - and Stomachs


Summer is well underway, and school-age children are celebrating their freedom from study hall and gym class.

But for many kids who qualify for free or reduced lunches, summer also means limited access to nutritious food.

Fortunately for these children and their families, more libraries across New York State are coming to their aid with summer food programs.  Not only do these programs fill a critical need and help students stay ready to learn through months of vacation, but participating libraries enjoy benefits of their own as patronage increases and community members learn about what their local library has to offer.

NYLA put out a call to the New York library community asking for stories and information about their summer food programs; the responses were interesting, poignant, and very encouraging for other libraries that would like to offer summer meals but are not sure where to start.

The Onondaga County Public Library System, in partnership with the Syracuse City School District, is an excellent example of the benefits meal programs bring to the community.  From July 6 through August 14, youth ages 18 and under can enjoy nutritious bagged lunches consisting of sandwiches, fruit, veggies, and milk at three participating Syracuse libraries.  The program is administered by the school district, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program, and delivered to the community by the District Mobile Nutrition Unit.  There has been an overwhelming positive response to these free meals; the Mundy Branch alone recently served 75 neighborhood children from the mobile meal truck in a single afternoon.  The Post-Standard did a write up on the program's succes.
Photo credit: Syracuse Post-Standard

The Penn Yan Public Library, a rural library in the Fingerlakes Region, added free lunches to their 2015 Summer Reading Program.  Youth under the age of 19 can pick up a bagged lunch during the 8-week reading program, with an average of 10 meals per day being served as of the end of July.  Funded by the USDA, this program benefits youth on both sides of the table; it is managed by the local high school’s future business leaders club in collaboration with Milly’s Pantry, a local organization dedicated to eradicating hunger.  These students make all purchasing and menu decisions, undergo food safety training, and hire their classmates to supervise distribution.

Tying a summer meals in with summer reading has led to increased popularity for both programs at the Patchogue-Medford Library in Patchogue, NY.  On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, patrons can enjoy bagged lunches consisting of sandwiches, fruit, and beverages offered through a partnership between the library and Island Harvest, a hunger relief organization based on Long Island.

The Chester Public Library in Chester, NY created an exciting pilot program this summer to respond to a difficult challenge.  Local schools already offered a Backpack Snack Attack Program, which sent schoolchildren home with food and health snacks on Friday afternoons, but the question arose over what these children did over the summer months?  Persistent work by the Chester Library staff paid off when, with only a week left before the summer recess, they were told that the library would receive donations of non-perishable food items five times over the course of the summer.  Working with the local Kiwanis group, the library staff collected, sorted, and distributed the food to 20 local families in need.  In turn, these families got new library cards, and their children participated in summer reading programs and story time.  The county and the library will meet in September to discuss the program’s success and possible expansion.

The Cuba Circulating Library participated in the summer food program for the first time this year.  Through a partnership with the Belfast Central School, they provided snacks to children and teens during the month of July.  Tina Dalton, the Youth Services Coordinator, drove to the school once a week to pick up the snacks, prepared and ready to go.  An average of 70 snacks per week were distributed at the following daily programs:

  1. Maker Monday, a Lego and crafting activity for kids ages 5-12
  2. Monday Mayhem, a teen crafting activity for kids ages 13-18
  3. Super Hero training camp, a storytime for kids in grades K-4
  4. Minion Storytime, a storytime for kids 2-5
  5. Go-go Gardening, a group of kids working on our community garden, grades 1-5

Many librarians are aware of a similar need in their communities for access to free, nutritious food over the summer months.  Questions of funding, staffing, and other logistics may seem like insurmountable obstacles to offering summer meals programs.  Fortunately for these libraries and their patrons, however, there are resources available to help meet at least some of these needs.

Hunger Solutions New York, a statewide nonprofit, is dedicated in part to making sure that New York’s children are fed throughout the year by outreach and advocacy for our nation's nutrition assistance programs.  The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), administered by the NYS Education Department and the US Department of Agriculture, uses federal funds to allow public libraries and other qualified organizations to serve free meals and snacks in areas with a significant proportion of low income children.  These meals can be distributed at little to no cost to the participating libraries; as federal entitlement programs, food and related costs are covered, and volunteers or library employees assist with distribution of the meals.
To find out how your library could serve your community better, or for more information, please see this resource created specifically for libraries considering getting involved.

If you or your library is considering offering a summer food program, or if you are not able to participate but would like to help spread the word about available summer food options, NYLA encourages you to reach out to your colleagues or organizations like Hunger Solutions New York for more information.

We also recommend the following thoughtful questions from Jane Chirgwin, Director of the Rensselaer Public Library and a veteran of summer food programs.  She has put together “6 Things to Consider before Starting a Summer Food Program at Your Library.”  Enjoy, and happy reading / eating!

  1. Determine need and eligibility.  Does your community need a summer food program?  Is there already one in place that is serving your area?  Is your area eligible for such a program?  Check out this map from the USDA to find out.

  2. Think ahead.  To supervise a site, you must apply and qualify, and then you must receive training, all before summer.  Hunger Solutions New York can help answer your questions and connect you to your local sponsors for partnering in outreach efforts or to become a place where meals and snacks are served.

  3. Have staff or volunteer time available.  Time is needed to help set up, distribute meals, clean up, fill out the daily and weekly forms and send them in, and keep an eye on things.

  4. Decide if your library has the right space and equipment.  You need enough space for children to sit and eat; you need a food thermometer (not a meat thermometer!) and a fridge thermometer; and you need a big garbage can, disinfecting wipes or spray, paper towels, soap and a paper towel holder.

  5. Have a policy in place for behavior issues and other concerns.  Some of these kids are in tough home situations, have untreated medical conditions, have learned to act aggressively to protect themselves, and often are alone for long periods of time.  Your staff needs to be prepared and know what the procedure is to handle kids acting out, very young children coming in alone, or children who stay all day.   While we want the kids to feel welcome, we also want the adults to be able to use the library as well!

  6. Decide how to connect the lunch program with the rest of your summer planning.  Ideally, a weekly activity should follow right after lunch.  One hurdle is library cards.  I found that some kids had lost books, others had no permanent address, and some had parents who were not available to sign for their cards.  Albany Public Library started a pilot program where kids could get a special card without parental consent or fines.  They are allowed three items and computer use, only at that library.  If they lose an item, they can’t use the card anymore.  This is just one example of a creative way around this issue.

At the end of the summer, it’s time to evaluate.  Is this program right for your library?  If the answer is YES, then write yourself notes for next year on what you would change, what you need to purchase, who you want to contact and how you will promote “lunch at the library.’  If you decide that your library is not able to participate, have the information on hand to refer kids and parents to other resources in your community.

Good luck!

- Dana Willbanks, NYLA Marketing Manager

Special thanks to the following individuals for their contribution to this piece:

  1. Janet Park, Onondaga County Public Library System
  2. Sarah Crevelling, Penn Yan Public Library
  3. Elaine Perez, Patchogue-Medford Library
  4. Maureen Jagos, Chester Library
  5. Tina Dalton, Cuba Circluating Library
  6. Jane Chirgwin, Rensselaer Public Library
  7. Misha Marvel, Hunger Solutions New York
  8. Photo Credit: Kira Maddox, The Post-Standard