If kids are hungry, they can’t read. This summer, millions of kids do not have a reliable food source to replace school lunch. Summer reading is a public library staple. Lifelong learning and literacy are core values for public libraries. If your library has an active summer reading program, you should consider how you can help to support summer meals in your community. Getting a tchotchke as an incentive for reading is pretty worthless if you’re too hungry to read. Libraries across the country are finding the Summer Food Service Program an excellent fit with the services they offer.
Librarians can take part in two ways – making the library a summer meal site or supporting an existing summer meal site. Our main library in St. Cloud (MN) is in its second year of being a summer food site. Getting the program started was a bit of a leap of faith. We had many questions including: ill patrons complain about meeting room availability? Will we have too many kids come? Will any kids come? Will we have enough volunteers?
I can say we were grateful for the community support for the library to start this program. The local media gave us radio air time and wrote stories about the program. It helped us to garner public attention as a community hub. Our city provides free busing for kids who are 10 and older. The library is on the main bus routes, so transportation is less of a barrier to the program. Local businesses provided a cadre of volunteers to help serve the food and clean up.
Becoming a food site wasn’t an easy decision. It grew out of a conversation with the local United Way on how the library could be a stronger community partner. Children in poverty is a growing problem in our area. It is one of the largest barriers to reducing the achievement gap. Once we understood what was involved with being a food site, we gave it a try. It went so well, we offered it again this summer.
How Our Summer Feeding Program Works
Kids younger than 18 receive a free meal each day. The meal is offered with no questions asked and is open to all kids. Program sponsors cook and deliver the food to the site as part of the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Our program sponsor is the Yes Network, a local nonprofit dedicated to creating vibrant neighborhoods. Volunteers serve the food and help monitor the space. Library staff and partners can offer programming during meal time. The idea of offering mealsin the library is probably more daunting than the actual site administration, once everything is in place.
The SFSP has existed since 1968 through the USDA. In 2013, the program began to expand, targeting specific states. The program is federally funded and state administered. This summer, USDA plans to serve more than 200 million free meals to children 18 years and under at approved SFSP sites. The SFSP is available to libraries. School districts and other entities can continue preparing lunches through Seamless Summer Feeding Option, which is a different program through USDA.
How to Get Started
Understanding state support and finding a program sponsor are the two first steps to getting the site started. Check with your state library to find out what resources are available to start a program. They can connect your library with partner agencies. Meals need to be prepared in a commercial facility, so finding a program sponsor who can help with this is essential. USDA provides a toolkit for getting started.
Recruiting and coordinating volunteers is crucial aspect of being a food site. Getting the word out about the program helped our library to find volunteers. Several local businesses offered to help support the program. When starting the program, recruiting participants was a volunteer activity. Friendly volunteers stood in the library lobby to welcome patrons and get the word out that lunch was available.
Having a plan for leftovers is also important. We partnered with a local women’s shelter to bring any leftovers to their facility. This partnership fits with the program requirements, and there is always a need for healthy food there.
Volunteering at an Established Meal Site
Helping at a meal site is another option. You can find summer food sites near you using the USDA’s tool:https://www.fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks. Sites are often looking for volunteers and programs to coordinate with meal time. Library staff or Friends of the Library can help to support these programs by providing learning experiences and literacy activities to the kids who come to eat. You can learn more how summer meal sites work by helping to support them.
One of the biggest challenges to being a food site is coordinating volunteers. This year, our Friends of the Library gave the library a grant to hire a volunteer coordinator to manage our summer feeding program. This allows our librarians to spend more time planning library activities and programs during lunch.
We were surprised at the community engagement this sparked in our library. Within the first week, we had neighbors meeting neighbors for the first time. Volunteers were very committed to helping out in the community. It is hard to describe all the benefits of being a summer food site. It has been a much more natural fit for our library than we had anticipated.
If your library hasn’t considered whether to become a summer food site, take a little time to look into it. You’ll be surprised at the support available to do this. Libraries play an integral role in student success. Supporting summer meal programs in your community is a natural way to expand the library’s reach and impact.
“Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).” Food and Nutrition Service. Accessed June 28, 2018. https://www.fns.usda.gov/sfsp/serving-summer-meals
“Libraries.” United States Department of Agriculture. Accessed June 28, 2018. https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/sfsp/smt-libraries.pdf
“Summer Food Service Program Frequently Asked Questions.” Food and Nutrition Service. Accessed June 28, 2018. https://www.fns.usda.gov/sfsp/frequently-asked-questions