Utilizing public libraries to combat food insecurity is not a new concept. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many public libraries across the country had programs in place to provide meals on the weekends and during summer for children in food insecure households. However, as the pandemic continues, Feeding America projects that over 50 million people—to include 17 million children—will face food insecurity as a result of COVID-19. Lack of access to the National School Lunch Program for food insecure students is an ongoing concern as at-home learning continues, prompting several libraries to go above and beyond to serve their communities and feed more than minds.
St. Louis County Library, Missouri
In December of 2020, the Urban Libraries Council named St. Louis County Library (SLCL) as a Top 10 Innovator in recognition of SLCL’s Drive-Thru Meal Program, which is made possible through the library’s long-standing partnership with Operation Food Search (OFS). SLCL has had a long standing partnership with OFS, starting with a Food for Fines program in 1999 that has since been held annually. This partnership would lead to the launch of a summer lunch program in 2014, which has served over 53,000 meals to date. In 2018, this service extended into an afterschool meal program at eight of SLCL’s branches, providing food as well as activities for children ages five through eighteen.
The framework of already established programs allowed for an easy transition into a drive-thru program, allowing SLCL to start distributing food in March of 2020, right as many states initiated pandemic related shutdowns. As of late January, over 1.5 million meals have been distributed, and SLCL’s Communications Manager, Jennifer McBride, states that they are on track to hitting their next milestone of providing 2 million meals later this year. SLCL plans to continue to provide drive-thru meals until the library buildings reopen and in-person services resume.
SLCL’s Director and CEO, Kristen Sorth, states: “St. Louis County Library stepped up and took an active role during the COVID-19 pandemic. Together with our community partners, we came up with creative ways to support our community during this crisis. We are an organization that likes to start with yes and work back from there.” SLCL didn’t stop with just distributing food, either. SLCL also partnered with the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank to provide diapers via curbside drive-thru five days a week and the St. Louis Area Alliance for Period Supplies to distribute “Flow Kits” during both their drive-thru meal hours and curbside pickup hours. SLCL also received $4 million from federal CARES Act funding to establish a Digital Equity Initiative to provide Chromebooks, Wi-Fi hotspots, and online tutoring. In addition, the library parking lots have been utilized as COVID-19 testing and flu shot sites.
San Antonio Public Library, Texas
In mid-December, the San Antonio Public Library (SAPL) launched a pilot program as distributors of Snack Paks through partnership with Snack Pak 4 Kids San Antonio. The Texas-based Snack Pak 4 Kids program was established to battle weekend hunger in food insecure homes. During the school year, participating schools discreetly give packs of food to eligible students for them to take home on Friday afternoons. Jennifer Velasquez, Coordinator of Teen Library Services, explained in an interview that, due to increased distance learning in the fall, the distribution of the Snack Paks had decreased. The contact-free pickup services that were already in place made SAPL an ideal off-campus pickup location for the program.
So far, more than six thousand children and teens have received a Snack Pak through the library. Coordinator of Children’s Services, Cresencia Huff, reports that children would often be overheard volunteering to be the one to get the Snack Paks from staff and excitedly exclaim over the contents. The Snack Paks have also raised awareness of other services that the library has to offer, such as access to free Wi-Fi and contact-free pickup of library materials. Velasquez and Huff reported that several teenagers who benefited from the program were initially reluctant to borrow materials, but soon started making requests for items such as Spiderman books.
The pilot program has now come to an end, but SAPL hopes to continue the service pending the approval of funding.
Lexington County Public Library System, South Carolina
While not all libraries have been able to establish food pickup services as part of their curbside offerings, some have still been able to address food insecurity related needs during the pandemic by finding ways to devote time and resources. Shortly after the state of South Carolina went into lockdown, food distribution sites were set up at Title 1 schools in Lexington County. Melissa Pityk—then Youth Services Coordinator for the Lexington County Public Library System (LCPL)—and Amy Pittsenbarger—head of the Lexington Main Library’s Youth Services Department—went to one such school to deliver books, coloring sheets, and early literacy activity booklets provided by the South Carolina State Library. While their initial plan had been to just drop off the materials, Pittsenbarger and Pityk were invited to stay to distribute the materials, an opportunity they gladly accepted.
Pittsenbarger recounted that that day is one of her favorite memories of being a librarian during COVID-19. Over the course of one day, Pittsenbarger and Pityk distributed over 150 books and were quickly wiped out of the early literacy booklets and coloring sheets. “It was an incredible experience,” Pittsenbarger said. “Watching the families’ faces when they realized that the books were a free gift, and that they could keep them. I feel like it’s such a good representation of not only how much we impact the community, but how much our community impacts us.” LCPL has continued to find ways to make an impact on their community, further ensuring that there is access to books and State Library materials at food distribution sites, as well as continuing to find ways to connect families to the resources available to them at the library.