This is a guest post by Patrice Chamberlain, director of the California Summer Meal Coalition.
Summer is right around the corner, yet in many low-income communities, this time of year can leave children with limited access to learning opportunities, few safe places to gather and without access to the free or reduced-price meals they received through their school lunch and breakfast programs.
In California and across the nation, a growing number of public libraries are teaming up with city agencies, schools and community-based organizations to ensure that low-income youth stay healthy and engaged when school is out by serving summer meals alongside library summer reading and enrichment programs.
Why Public Libraries?
Libraries are community hubs: trusted, safe spaces that provide an engaging, welcoming environment for community members of all ages. Library summer reading and enrichment programs keep kids engaged and combat summer learning loss. In addition, access to computers and the Internet are a crucial resource for families with limited access to technology at home. Interaction with library staff and opportunities for social engagement can also be invaluable to families. Librarians can help guide reading choices, serve as positive role models and connect families to community resources.
Recognizing the need in their communities, libraries across the nation are stepping up to address the summer nutrition gap. In California, the number of libraries serving summer meals has increased dramatically, from fewer than 15 library branches in 2012 to more than 90 this summer. In 2014, nearly 65 libraries served more than 88,000 summer lunches to kids in high-poverty neighborhoods.
Libraries As “Community Connectors”
Children aren’t the only ones that benefit from library meal programs. Libraries benefit, too. Among participating libraries in California in 2014, library staff reported an increase in library card issuance, participation in summer reading programs and new families visiting the library. Library meal programs also provide valuable volunteer experiences for youth, helping them develop workforce readiness skills and opportunities to engage with the community. USDA summer meal programs are enhancing libraries’ community-building efforts and are helping to create connected and vibrant cities. Here are some examples from communities across the country:
- At California’s Riverside Public Library, meals were provided by Riverside Unified School District, and the city public works department provided weekly conservation programming for kids participating in the lunch program.
- At Massachusetts’ Peabody Institute Library, volunteers from the sheriff’s department, local churches and the Rotary Club managed activities with kids. Funds from the local Workforce Investment Board paid for youth to manage the lunch service.
- In New York State, some libraries are expanding their involvement in out-of-school time nutrition programs by offering afterschool snacks and dinner alongside their afterschool enrichment programs during the school year.
There are several ways that city leaders can work with the public libraries in their communities to organize summer meal programs, ranging from the immediate to longer-term opportunities:
- Convene city and school leaders to create a citywide dialogue about promoting summer meals and literacy. This dialogue should include an assessment of summer learning programs and summer meal sites to identify gaps in neighborhood coverage or opportunities for collaboration with local libraries. In addition, many libraries participating in local Campaign for Grade Level Reading efforts can help connect summer meal providers to their networks. Or consider creative school collaborations like Washington State’s Federal Way Public Schools’ F.R.E.D. mobile lunch and literacy bus.
- Provide support for enrichment activities. Adding incentives and activities can help increase participation at summer meal sites. Bringing the library bookmobile to a meal site, for example, can pique children’s interest in reading while they eat a healthy meal. Similarly, facilitating relationships with other agencies — such as police and fire departments — that may be able to support library meal programs with activities or serve as guest readers can be mutually beneficial and stimulate greater interagency collaboration.
- Encourage libraries to become summer meal sites for 2016. For many municipal libraries, budgets have been set and plans have been made for this summer. Yet starting the dialogue now will facilitate effective planning this fall or for summer 2016. Now is the time to set the vision for a connected city and identify how a library summer meal program can be a driving force behind it.
Additional resources for libraries are available at LunchAtTheLibrary.org.
About the Author: Patrice Chamberlain is the director of the California Summer Meal Coalition, a program of the Institute for Local Government. The Institute for Local Government is the education and research affiliate of the California State Association of Counties, League of California Cities and the California Special Districts Association. Follow the California Summer Meal Coalition at @CA_SummerMeals.