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Nourishing Bodies & Minds When School is Out: California’s Public Library Summer Meal Programs

by Natalie Cole & Patrice Chamberlain on June 2, 2015

A growing number of public libraries across the United States are embracing an unlikely program as part of their summertime operations—U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) summer meal programs. Subverting the historic stereotype of “no food in the library,” public libraries are providing free lunches and snacks to children and teens during the summer, and utilizing these programs to engage underserved families, enhance the summer reading program, develop new community partnerships, and raise the library’s profile. And it’s working. Public library summer meal programs are helping ensure that children and teens in low-income neighborhoods are healthy and engaged during the summer, enabling them to return to school in the fall ready to learn. In addition, they are bringing new and often underserved families to the library and introducing them to library resources, facilitating new community partnerships, engaging local leaders with the library, increasing the visibility of library services, and providing new opportunities for youth development in the library.

Through a project titled Lunch at the Library, the California Summer Meal Coalition (CSMC) and California Library Association (CLA) are supporting the development of public library summer meal programs in California, exploring how these programs can help serve families and provide positive outcomes for the library, and creating resources to help more libraries implement successful summer meal programs.

The Need for Summer Meals

The USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, more commonly referred to as a summer meal program, ensures that children and youth in low-income neighborhoods continue to have access to healthy food when school lets out for summer vacation. Summer meal programs enable school districts, units of local government, tribal governments, and community-based agencies to offer free, healthy meals to children and youth age eighteen and under in low-income neighborhoods. Summer meals can be offered at a range of locations, including libraries, and are served to all children, without requiring parents or caregivers to complete any paperwork.

The need for high-quality, accessible summer meal programs is significant. A 2013 nationwide survey of parents found that more than 40 percent of low-income parents had a harder time making ends meet in summer than during the school year, with some respondents reporting that they did not have enough food during the summer break.1 However, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), while more than 19 million children, on average, received a free or reduced-price lunch during the 2012–2013 school year, fewer than 3 million children participated in a 2013 summer meal program.2 Some of the barriers that impede families from participating in summer meal programs are a lack of sites, or of sites that appeal to families, and a lack of awareness of summer meal sites. In addition, cuts to summer school and other summer programs have left many school, city, and community-based organization meal providers with another major barrier—a lack of activities and programming at their sites. Many parents and caregivers are looking for activities to keep children and teens engaged during the summer as well as nutrition support to help where limited summer budgets fall short.

Researchers at Washington University have traced the negative impact of poverty on brain development and highlighted the links between inadequate nutrition, poor education, and other conditions of stress on developmental outcomes.3 Summertime can add to those stressful conditions by creating a perfect storm for risk of food insecurity, obesity, and summer learning loss.
Our collective imagination of summertime is one of children outside playing. Yet for those living in neighborhoods with limited access to healthy food options and few safe places to play, summer can present a very different reality. In some neighborhoods, the omnipresence of unhealthy food options poses additional challenges for families. Research shows that children gain weight two to three times faster during the summer than during the school year; those already at risk of obesity are at even greater risk for excessive weight gain.4 The impact of inadequate nutrition on students’ ability to learn is significant. Although the relationship between food insecurity and childhood obesity is complex, both are associated with lower academic gains, increased absenteeism and tardiness, social and mental health problems, and “poor developmental trajectories.”5

For many children in families with low income, the learning opportunities they receive in the classroom end along with the nutrition provided by the school lunches when school lets out for summer vacation, leaving them to face uneven access to formal summer learning programs. Youth in families with low income fall further behind in academic skills, particularly reading, during the summer break, experiencing greater summer learning loss than their higher income peers and widening the achievement gap.6 Research shows that children in families with low income are nearly three grades behind their more affluent peers in reading by the end of fifth grade as a cumulative consequence of summer learning loss.7 Unequal summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years account for about two-thirds of the ninth-grade achievement gap, contributing to a lower likelihood that low-income youth will graduate from high school or enter college in comparison to middle-income students.8

Making the Case for Public Library Summer Meal Partnerships

The stark contrast between school year and summer child nutrition program data, and the increasing body of research on summer learning loss, has provided a call to action for many agencies, including libraries, which are proving to be natural spaces for serving meals to children whose access to lunch disappears when school ends. Libraries are community spaces at the heart of the neighborhood. They are rich with learning activities and opportunities, all free of charge to the user. And library staff members share a commitment to providing support to all members of the community, often acting as an equalizing force in communities divided by socioeconomic barriers. Moreover, libraries are trusted and valued by the community. The Pew Research Center reports that Americans believe libraries are important assets within their community and improve the quality of life. Libraries are particularly valued by low-income families and perceived as providing resources that parents cannot provide for their children at home.9

Lunch at the Library Program

After learning about communities that were starting to address the intersections between hunger and learning through public library summer meal programs, CSMC and CLA decided in 2013 to explore how to expand these programs across the state and gather a better understanding of what public library summer meal models could look like and achieve. While a small number of library summer meal sites were already scattered across the country, very little had been done to track their experiences and promote the value of libraries as summer meal partners. With support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and with Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) funding from the California State Library, CSMC and CLA developed the Lunch at the Library program to support, evaluate, and document summer meal programs in California’s public libraries, and to develop a body of knowledge that could be used to help libraries establish themselves as successful and meaningful summer meal sites.

In California, many communities are still trying to rebound from years of economic decline. Cuts to summer learning programs have meant cuts to school-based summer meal programs, leaving 50 percent fewer school-based summer meal sites between 2009 and 2010.10 Reflecting national data, in 2012 only 17 percent of children in California who received a free or reduced-price lunch during the school year also participated in a summer meal program; meaning that more than two million eligible children did not participate.11 The state has proven to be the perfect ground for experimentation because of its size, diversity, and severe need. (Not to mention that we found a number of adventurous librarians willing to embark on the exploratory journey with us.)

Lunch at the Library has provided support to libraries in the form of funding, technical assistance, training, and the development of an information exchange. In return, participating libraries have experimented with their summer meal programs and provided us with generous amounts of feedback. In 2013, we worked closely with six branches within Fresno County, Los Angeles Public, Sacramento Public, and San Diego County libraries, and we were guided by staff at the Oakland Public Library who had started serving summer meals the previous year. The Lunch at the Library collaboration partnership expanded to include Alameda County, Contra Costa County, Kern County, and Riverside City in 2014, while also connecting with other efforts being made in libraries in Chula Vista, Redwood City, Riverside County, Salinas, San Diego City, San Francisco, San José, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo County, Santa Barbara, Solano County, South San Francisco, and Tulare County.

Replacing Trepidation with Enthusiasm and Impact

Full disclosure: There has been a fair amount of trepidation among librarians who agreed to participate in the project. There are plenty of legitimate things to worry about, ranging from how the program would work during the already busy summer months, convincing administrators (and staff) that this was really and truly a great idea, following the many rules of USDA summer meal programs, to the myriad “what ifs” of things that just might go wrong. However, libraries’ passion for and commitment to their communities outweighed the anxiety. And we’re thankful to report that the effort has paid off.

Libraries have proven to be very popular summer meal sites with families in California, and in some communities they became a daily summer destination. In 2013, our first Lunch at the Library sites served more than 24,000 meals. This coincided with a modest statewide increase of 11 percent in summer meal program participation in California.14 In 2014, more than 85,000 meals were served at 62 California public library sites through USDA summer meal programs, once again contributing to a continued statewide growth in summer meal participation overall. The need for such popular summer meal sites is clear. Of the 1,981 children and caregivers surveyed as part of the Lunch in the Library program in 2014, 19 percent reported that, during the summer, they ate lunch only at the library. An additional 11 percent reported that they ate lunch only at the library and at other free summer meal sites.

Library staff members at our project sites have focused on helping families feel healthy, both physically and emotionally, at the library meal site. They have created welcoming and safe environments, greeted families upon their arrival at the library, displayed kids’ artwork on the walls, engaged families in healthy activities like T-ball and jump rope, and presented programs on nutrition and healthy behaviors, and are achieving positive results. When surveyed in 2014, 77 percent of the 1,981 people surveyed told us that they felt happy at the program, 61 percent felt good about themselves, and 56 percent felt safe. In addition, families throughout the state reported how deeply appreciative they are of the program, saying, for example:

  • “I would like to thank everyone for helping me learn to read, eat, and feel safe.”
  • “It’s just nice to be part of a program that all-around cares :-)”
  • “[This program makes me] feel like the community cares about us.”

Engaging New Families with the Library

The meal service has also positively impacted participating libraries. Library staff members have reported that their meal programs attracted new families to the library and provided opportunities to introduce children, teens, and adults to library services and programs. Lunch at the Library site staff seized these opportunities by engaging families attending the lunch service in one-on-one conversations about the library, handing out library flyers, signing families up for summer reading, and presenting activities and programs alongside the lunch service. Correspondingly, families who came for the meal service  reported having an understanding of the help and essential resources available at the library. At the end of summer 2014, 93 percent of people surveyed said they know they can find books and things to borrow at the library, 79 percent know they can find computers, 70 percent know they can find information, and 69 percent know they can find people to help them at the library.

In 2013, participating libraries reported a growth in summer reading participation at summer meal sites. At the Central Library in Fresno, summer reading participation rose nearly 19 percent from the previous year to 988 participants. Library staff said, “I believe the increase has to do with the summer lunch program and people learning about all the different services the library has to offer.” At the Los Angeles Public Library, 355 people took part in summer reading as a result of the Lunch at the Library program. Library staff said: “We signed a lot of kids up for summer reading and succeeded in helping parents see the library as a place that is multifaceted in its approach to serving families.” Sacramento Public Library’s Valley Hi-North Laguna Branch saw its summer reading program participation almost triple from the previous year, from 744 to 2110 participants. In addition, the branch experienced a 6.6 percent increase in issuance of new library cards over the previous year. The library did not hold a library card drive in 2013 and credits the meal program as the driving force for the increase. Staff said: “The summer meals program at Valley Hi-North Laguna was nothing short of transformational.”

Having a new mechanism to draw families to the library has enabled library staff to introduce previously underserved community members to library resources. Moreover, the program is bringing whole families into the library, which can be key when trying to engage children with both libraries and summer meal programs.

Librarians have also reported that the summer meal program helped resolve behavioral issues among regular library patrons by addressing the often hidden issue of hunger in the community. It is well-documented that hunger can impact attention, concentration, and behavior, and thus academic readiness. Participating librarians have observed improved behavior and attentiveness, a “sense of calm,” among children at their libraries and attributed the improvement to the lunch element.

Food Brings People (and Partners) Together

Library meal programs have also been successful in generating meaningful community partnerships for libraries and elevating the library’s profile as a key community partner when school is out. Libraries’ primary summer meal partners are the meal sponsors (such as school districts, county offices of education, food banks, and community-based agencies) that provide the meals each day and that promote the library through their own networks. In some communities, libraries and meal sponsors have also worked together on citywide summer kick-off events, and sponsors have provided staff to help operate the meal service at the library.

Participating meal sponsors have appreciated that libraries have adeptly followed the many program rules and reported that libraries were among their most well-attended sites. All of the libraries and meal sponsors that participated in the first year of Lunch at the Library extended their relationships to the following summer, and in some cases, extended their partnerships to include new projects such as providing meals to students at homework clubs, expanding to new library branches, and developing joint collaborations with other city and county agencies.

The summer meal service has also fostered other community partnerships. In Sacramento, the library partnered with Vision to Learn, an organization that provides free vision screening and eyeglasses to children in low-income neighborhoods. Vision to Learn’s mobile screening unit, which would otherwise have gone unused in the absence of school, visited the library to test kids’ eyes and distribute eyeglasses during the meal service. In Riverside, the local public utilities agency provided weekly conservation programming during the library lunch service. In San Diego County, the library partnered with the local health and human services agency to offer “Instant Recess” physical activities to keep kids moving. Firefighters and the police chief read stories to kids during the lunch service at the Contra Costa County’s San Pablo branch library. At Fresno County Public Library, the mascot from the popular minor league baseball team, the Fresno Grizzlies, took pictures with kids during the lunch service. And in many communities, partnerships with local health departments enabled libraries to offer nutrition education alongside the lunch service. Community partners were eager to work with the libraries because they too needed a vehicle to reach families and promote their services when school is out.

Partnerships in Rural Areas

Partnerships have been particularly crucial in rural areas, which face the added summertime burden of transportation issues, extreme heat, a smaller pool of organizational partners to work with, and sometimes a complete shutdown of schools, which limits both summer learning opportunities as well as summer meals. In Borrego Springs, a small town located two hours outside of San Diego, kids had very few summer options. The library partnered with the school district, the community pool, a local Boys & Girls Club, and community partners to combine resources to transport kids to different activities throughout the day, landing at the library for lunch and programming. Part of San Diego County Library system, the Borrego Springs Branch Library received meals through Feeding America San Diego, a local food bank. In addition, a food bank volunteer, impressed with the collaboration, drove weekly to the library to supply bags of produce (provided through the food bank’s produce program) for the children to bring home to their families.

Perhaps the most significant outcome of these partnerships is how they helped libraries, partners, and local leaders think more broadly about leveraging summer meal programs to help their communities work smarter and more collaboratively. After reading to children in Kern County’s Beale Memorial Library and seeing firsthand the value of the program, a county supervisor became one of the program’s biggest champions. In San Pablo, a local council member supported the program by regularly visiting the library to read to children and by helping to facilitate relationships with other agencies and leaders. From a local leader’s perspective, Lunch at the Library illustrates a best-case scenario: a city or county working together effectively to support the community.

Volunteerism Turned Youth Development Opportunity

Volunteers are essential to the success of library meal programs, and libraries’ experience and expertise in recruiting and working with volunteers has contributed to their success as summer meal sites. Volunteers have been invaluable for library staff already stretched thin with summer reading programs and activities, and regulars often provided continuity for the program throughout the summer months.

Although some adults served as volunteers (including parents who volunteered along with their teens and library staff), teens are the most commonly used volunteers, and were recruited through schools, community agencies such as Boys & Girls Clubs, library volunteer programs, library regulars, teens looking for community service hours, and teen-to-teen word of mouth. In Sacramento, the coordinating librarian said: “More teens then joined through word of mouth because of the positive environment (they came to work and hang out with their friends).”

When embarking on the Lunch at the Library project, CLA and CSMC had not anticipated the extent to which the program would impact youth in the community, yet participating libraries quickly demonstrated that summer meal programs can become meaningful youth development programs. Teen volunteers have helped to plan meal services, greet families, hand out meals, manage meal service logistics, and engage children and their families with activities. In Contra Costa County Library’s San Pablo Branch Library, teen volunteers designed their own nutrition education game to promote healthy eating and engage younger children in physical activity, in addition to helping manage the meal program. Most teen volunteers have come from the community that was being served and many are already skilled in working with younger children, thanks to having siblings of their own. Teens and young adults are indispensable assets to the program, and library staff have seen the program engage teens and spark a passion among them. In Los Angeles, library staff said: “The teen volunteers—in particular, one girl who came regularly every day—were essential. Because we had such a big group of staff working summer lunch, there were many people who only worked one day a week, and so we were constantly training and reminding them about procedures. The volunteers, because they were there every day, provided continuity and stability for the families—and often told staff what they needed to be doing.”

More than simply providing community service, teens are acquiring organization, management, communication, and teamwork skills crucial for a twenty-first century workforce. As a bonus, they are also able to eat the meals being served. In Los Angeles, the library has paid for teens to obtain food handling certificates, which will add to their employer desirability should they choose to pursue jobs in the food service industry. In Sacramento, a meal program volunteer coordinator hosted a workshop to help teens identify and articulate the skills they learned, discussed strategies for pursuing a job, and provided sample résumés and letters of recommendation. The coordinator arranged for the human resources personnel at Target and the executive vice president of a local technology company to give presentations at the volunteer appreciation lunch held at the conclusion of the summer, and library staff said: “That Lunch at the Library turned into a training ground for the teens was an unexpected bonus.”


The relative novelty of offering food in the library has helped garner significant media attention for libraries offering summer meals, helping to raise awareness about food insecurity and summer learning loss. Previously, little attention had been paid to the issues facing low-income families when school was not in session. Media coverage has augmented library efforts to promote the service to families and provided opportunities to raise the visibility of the library and highlight library programs and resources. In Oakland, the noted children’s author Todd Parr visited the library on multiple occasions after hearing a story about the program in the local media. In Fresno, library staff said: “The promotion and publicity was great. We had a wonderful response from the media; we were highlighted in various news outlets, both in print and on TV. The media promotion helped draw people to the program and create an understanding of why we were offering a lunch program.”

Adding Programming to the Meal Service Idea

The most successful summer meal sites are those that offer programs and activities to complement the meal service, and libraries are ideally positioned to provide learning and enrichment activities before, during, and after lunch. By offering high-quality programming alongside the meal service, libraries can help to prevent summer learning loss as well as food insecurity within their low-income communities.

The wide variety of programming offered by libraries as part of the Lunch at the Library project includes storytimes, craft stations, art and writing workshops, Zumba, ping pong, nutrition education programs, and container gardening. A key theme that has emerged is the need for libraries to experiment with a range of activities to determine the type of programming that is the best fit for them, given the drop-in context, available staffing, and space. The Los Angeles Public Library has had great success with placing play kitchens in the lunch rooms, which were “ragingly popular with kids ages two to seven,” and with STEAM activity stations. The stations enabled kids to explore weight and measurement, investigate rocks with magnifying glasses, study magnets, build ramps, and predict distance and speed. Different activities were available each day and kids were given the opportunity to create experiments, make predictions, and record observations. San Diego County Library has offered a popular App Academy, enabling kids to use learning-based apps on iPads during the lunch program. Community collaborations have enabled libraries to offer a range of programming that did not require significant, if any, additional funds, and enabled them to tap into other community resources. These types of partnerships have also meant that libraries did not need to stray from their already-planned summer schedules but could add supplementary activities as needed.

It Wouldn’t Be Perfect without a Few Flaws

Even the most perfect diamond has a few flaws. The Lunch at the Library project has demonstrated that a summer meal program can be transformative for libraries in many ways. It has also exposed a range of challenges, some that could be addressed and others that require larger systematic changes.

The primary concerns reported by librarians participating in the project were related to USDA summer nutrition program regulations. Because summer nutrition programs are designed specifically to serve children and youth, there is no flexibility to also offer their adult caregivers a meal. This regulation was emotionally difficult for staff and volunteers in areas where adult food insecurity is also an issue and in an institution that prides itself on access for all. It also prevents families from eating together, a practice that can facilitate children’s healthy eating habits and is an integral part of many, if not most cultures. Some libraries worked around this issue by offering meals-for-purchase for adults or bags of produce for families to take home. Libraries without those options had clear signage specifying the regulation in an easy-to-understand way to help alleviate uncomfortable situations for patrons or library staff and volunteers.

Food quality is a concern in some libraries. In cases where menus became repetitive or food items were not well liked, libraries worked with their food partners to make improvements where possible. USDA summer meal programs operate through a reimbursement mechanism and providers must work within those funding constraints to provide food that is both healthy and appealing. Waste was a related issue. Regulations require that (with some exceptions) uneaten items must be disposed of to comply with health and safety standards. While some libraries were able to find workable solutions with their providers, such as sending fewer meals or improving quality, the issue remains one of greater significance within the food system. It is also a reminder of the unsolvable problem of finding the “right” amount of food for each individual child in a program designed to
feed many.

Some libraries have also had internal challenges to address: How would staff feel about being asked to do “one more thing” during what can be the busiest time of the year? Would library administration be supportive of the program to help ensure effective implementation? Was there really need in the community? Would this program be perceived as an effort only for the children’s librarian? How would other staff see this as part of their job, too? Not surprisingly, exposure was a key strategy to alleviating anxiety and resistance where it existed—providing staff and leadership with firsthand experience of the program enabled them to see its value, both to the community and the library. It was also helpful for all library staff to understand in advance that in many communities, the face of poverty has changed and “need” is not always overtly visible. The meal service provided many librarians with an opportunity to sit down with families and hear their stories, building a deeper relationship with the community.

Practice Makes Perfect . . .Or at Least a Good Teacher

“The project successfully linked healthy meals to summer reading and active play. [It] expanded everyone’s ideas of what happens at a library.”—Librarian

Capturing the experiences of California libraries participating in the Lunch at the Library project, and other California summer meal programs, has enabled CSMC and CLA to develop a knowledge base to help libraries become successful summer meal sites. We have developed a web-based clearinghouse that includes an overview of USDA summer nutrition programs, and information on getting started, programming and planning, working with volunteers, promotion to families, public relations, program evaluation, and troubleshooting. The site also includes a map of public library summer meal sites in the United States and a discussion list for library staff who operate, or are considering, a summer meal program at their branch. All libraries are encouraged to add their sites to the map and join the discussion list, all of which can be found at lunchatthelibrary.org.

Taking It Further in California

The last two years have provided a substantial foundation for library summer meal programs in California. However, there is  much more to learn, document, and share from libraries operating summer meal programs. Next, the California project aims to develop quality standards for summer meal-literacy programs, explore the impact of the learning activities that take place at public library summer meal sites, engage all California public library meal sites in a statewide evaluation effort, engage elected officials and city and county leaders with the project in greater depth, and explore year-round efforts to include afterschool meals.

The knowledge gained through the Lunch at the Library project has been limited to a select group of libraries in California. What were the experiences of other libraries operating summer meal programs? What are the best practices for rural communities? How important is it for a library to effectively engage in this type of effort? Many questions remain about how to implement summer meal programs that successfully meet community and library needs. And finding those answers comes from continuing to expand the effort to more libraries. The drive to further that exploration is the knowledge that there are many more communities in California and across the nation that can benefit from offering this type of service so that every child can enjoy a summer feeling nurtured, nourished, and confident, and can return to school in the fall, healthy and ready to learn.

Lunch at the Library is a program of the California Library Association and California Summer Meal Coalition. It is supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and by 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.


  1. Share Our Strength (SOS), “Summer Meals Survey,” Mar. 2013, accessed Dec. 10, 2014.
  2. Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report 2014,” June 2014, accessed Dec. 10, 2014.
  3. Joan Luby, et al., “The Effects of Poverty on Childhood Brain Development: The Mediating Effect of Caregiving and Stressful Life Events,” JAMA Pediatrics 167, no. 12 (Dec. 2013): 1,135–142.
  4. P. T. von Hippel, et al., “The Effect of School on Overweight in Childhood: Gain in Body Mass Index During the School Year and During Summer Vacation,” American Journal of Public Health 97, no. 4 (Apr. 2007): 696–702; National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), “Healthy Summers for Kids: Turning Risk into Opportunity,” May 2012, accessed Dec. 10, 2014.
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  6. Harris Cooper, et al., “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta-Analytic Review,” Review of Educational Research 66, no. 3 (Fall 1996): 227–68.
  7. Summer Matters, “Why Summer Matters,” accessed Dec. 22, 2014; Karl L. Alexander, Doris R. Entwisle, and Linda Steffel Olson, “Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap,”  American Sociological Review 72, no. 2 (Apr. 2007): 167–80.
  8. Kathryn Zickuhr, et al., “How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities,” Pew Research Center, Dec. 11, 2013, accessed Dec. 13, 2014.
  9. Carolyn Miller, et al., “Parents, Children, Libraries, and Reading,” Pew Research Center, May 1, 2013, accessed Dec. 22,
    2014; Matthew Sharp and Tia Shimada, “School’s Out . . . Who Ate? A Report on Summer Nutrition in California,” California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA), June 2011, accessed Dec. 22, 2014.
  10. Matthew Sharp and Tia Shimada, “School’s Out . . . Who Ate? Data Highlights,” California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA), June 2013, accessed Dec. 22, 2014.
  11. FRAC, “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation.”

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