When school closes for summer vacation, the responsibility for children’s well-being falls on no one agency exclusively. Consequently, it can leave many communities disconnected—and allow low-income children and youth to fall through the cracks. A growing number of libraries are changing that by supplementing their summer offerings with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) summer meal programs. Taking a “whole-child” approach to summer and providing low-income children with learning opportunities, healthy food, and social interaction, librarians across the country are facilitating greater community collaboration—and restoring summer vacation’s legacy as a time for kids to look forward to.
Years of recession have meant less funding for formal summer learning and enrichment programs. Low-income students already have disproportionately fewer summer learning opportunities than their more affluent peers and have been the most heavily affected by these cuts, contributing to the widening achievement gap. But economically disadvantaged students miss out on more than education and enrichment opportunities during the summer: They lose access to the free or reduced-price breakfast or lunch they received at school, which also puts them at greater risk of food insecurity and obesity. [i]
USDA summer meal programs enable schools, community-based organizations, public libraries and other city, county and tribal agencies to enhance their summer programs by providing free, healthy lunches to kids ages 18 and under in low-income neighborhoods. In 2013, approximately 21 million children received a free or reduced-price lunch during the school year, yet fewer than 3 million participated in a summer meal program. Barriers to participation often include a dearth of sites that are accessible and inviting, a lack of programming, and parental concerns about site safety.
Experiences in California demonstrate that libraries can be highly successful summer meal sites by offering the lunch service along with their summer reading and enrichment programs. Libraries’ success can be attributed to the fact that they are trusted spaces at the heart of the community and provide families with myriad other programs, resources, and services. In 2014, 65 California libraries served more than 85,000 meals and discovered additional benefits:
- Combating summer learning loss and the summer nutrition gap: San Diego County Library increased participation in summer reading programs by 138% by offering enrichment programming and lunch.
- New families at the library: Sacramento Public Library credits the lunch service for a significant increase in the number of library cards issued.
- Engagement with library programming: Hunger can negatively impact children’s concentration and behavior. [ii] The lunch program helps children and teens better engage with library programs, like at the Los Angeles Public Library where STEAM stations were set up alongside the lunch program.
- New community partnerships: Riverside Public Library developed a partnership with the school district and distributed more than 600 books at the citywide summer kick-off event. The library also had weekly conservation programming offered by the public works department.
- New volunteer opportunities for youth: Sacramento Public Library empowered teens by showcasing the job skills they developed while volunteering at the lunch program. California libraries recognized that teen volunteers were indispensible assets to the program and were great at working with the younger children.
- Increased visibility and support for the library: Contra Costa’s San Pablo branch included storytime with the police chief, firefighters, and city council members. A poignant news story about Oakland Public Library’s program was enough to draw a popular children’s book illustrator to regularly volunteer for the program.
Ready to Connect the Dots in Your Community?
There are several resources for libraries who are interested in learning more about how to library become a summer meal site or supporting local summer meal programs:
- USDA Summer Food Service Program website features webinars, toolkits, and a mapping tool to help determine need in the community.
- Lunch at the Library website provides practice-based resources and evaluation tools to help librarians successfully partner the lunch service with summer reading and enrichment programs. A listserv enables library staff to share ideas and challenges with others from across the country.
- Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) website provides state-specific data, anti-hunger advocate contacts, and other helpful resources related to food insecurity. Each June, FRAC issues its Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation report that features a state-by-state analysis of participation trends and opportunities to reach more kids.
Adding “one more thing” to library staff during an already busy time can seem daunting. But summer meals are helping libraries more effectively meet the needs of low-income families when school is out…and helping libraries lead the charge to build healthier, more connected communities.
[ii] Leadership for Healthy Communities. (2012 February). Making the connection: Linking policies that prevent hunger and childhood obesity. Retrieved February 15, 2015.
Lunch at the Library is a project of the California Summer Meal Coalition and the California Library Association. It receives support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered in California by the State Librarian. The Summer Food Service Program is a program of the United States Department of Agriculture, administered in California by the California Department of Education.
- Patrice Chamberlain, MPH, is the director of the California Summer Meal Coalition, a program of the Institute for Local Government. For more information about CSMC, visit summermealcoalition.org
- Natalie Cole, PhD, is the Interim Executive Director of the California Library Association. For more information about CLA, visit cla-net.org
Want more info? A feature article on this topic “Nourishing Bodies and Minds When School is Out: California’s Public Library Summer Meal Program,” by Natalie Cole and Patrice Chamberlain will appear in the March/April 2015 issue of Public Libraries.