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Feeding the Body and the Mind – Library Summer Feeding Programs

by on June 15, 2018

What was once a fledgling experiment taking place in a few public libraries across the country has now become a mainstream success. Through summer feeding programs, public libraries are finding new ways to serve and engage their communities, while also contributing to the fight to end food insecurity, and pulling new audiences into their libraries.

The vast majority of these programs receive support from the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service’s Summer Food Service Program, which since 1968 has been providing free lunches to at-risk youth aged 18 and under across the country.[1] The program has expanded from 1,200 sites in 1968 to over 50,000 sites in 2016,[2] including hundreds of public libraries across the country.

For instance, in California alone in 2018, 198 public libraries will serve an estimated 275,000 free meals, all fully reimbursed by the USDA, through the state’s Lunch at the Library program.[3] California, like Ohio, Montana, Colorado and other states, have embraced the summer feeding program, contributing substantial state time and money to ensuring that public libraries have the tools they need to participate in this free program.

For instance, in Montana the state library has offered a free webinar for the last few years on the topic of “how your library can collaborate with the Montana Summer Food Program to match programming up with feeding Montana’s kids a nutritious meal.”[4] The webinar has featured the stories of actual Montana public librarians who have participated in the summer feeding program, inspiring others to get involved. Similar educational opportunities have been offered in Colorado,[5] Ohio, and elsewhere.

In Ohio, the state library prominently includes the summer feeding program in its 2018-2022 Five-Year Plan. The plan states that

“The State Library has initiated a strong promotional initiative encouraging public libraries to participate in the USDA Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Summer reading programs have long been a pillar of library literacy programming for young patrons but hungry kids don’t read. They can become trapped in a cycle of poor school performance and ill health that can have lifelong literacy and learning consequences. The State Library works with public libraries to help youth experiencing food insecurity by becoming an SFSP site, becoming an SFSP sponsor, partnering with existing sites, publicizing the program and/or connecting young patrons to the program. In 2016, 39 public library systems participated in SFSP, allowing 133 individual library sites (branches) to participate. Over the five years 2012-2016, there has been a 60% increase in the number of library sites, and nearly double the number of library systems participating in SFSP.”[6]

California has done similar work, sending out a survey in Spring 2018 inquiring about any obstacles public libraries may face that prevent them from participating in the USDA Summer Feeding program.[7]

And indeed obstacles do  exist. For instance, a discussion on the Programming Librarian Interest Group group on Facebook revealed that in some parts of the country libraries do not see summer feeding as an appropriate task of the library. In Spring 2018, a librarian in Indiana wrote that

“I had [a summer feeding program] all organized [at my library] and then my board told me I couldn’t do it 🙁 We were going to go through the USDA’s program. It wouldn’t have cost our library a dime! We are in a very traditional town. They are making a lot of forward strides but this was really saddening.

Luckily the local church agreed to pick up where I left off, so the kids will be getting food. I just wish the library would get the PR for it.”

This story illustrates that we still have a way to go before summer feeding is completely accepted within the public library profession. To learn more about how and why to bring summer feeding to your library check out these free resources:

  • “More Than Summer Lunches–Social, Cultural, and Healthy Connections” Janet Reynolds, Librarian, Library District #2 of Linn County, La Cygne, KS (Population served: 2400) discusses how and why her library started serving meals, and how they developed programming around those meals so that the summer program was more than just a free lunch. http://nlcblogs.nebraska.gov/bigtalk/previous-conferences/2018-presentations/more-than-summer-lunches-social-cultural-and-healthy-connections/
  • The non-profit WebJunction has embraced ending food insecurity as a priority area. Check out their free learning resources to discover how libraries can get involved. https://www.webjunction.org/news/webjunction/hunger-and-libraries.html & https://www.webjunction.org/events/webjunction/beyond-food-for-fines.html.


[1]  United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service’s Summer Food Service Program website: https://www.fns.usda.gov/sfsp/program-history

[2] United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service’s Summer Food Service Program: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/child-nutrition-programs/summer-food-service-program/

[3] Civil Eats website: https://civileats.com/2018/06/05/libraries-are-bridging-the-summer-gap-for-hungry-kids/

[4] Montana State Library – Summer Food Service Video https://vimeo.com/channels/403784/262451306

[5] Colorado State Library – Summer Food Service Webinar:

[6] IMLS.gov: https://www.imls.gov/sites/default/files/state-profiles/plans/ohio5yearplan.pdf

[7] California State Library survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/summermealchallenges

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