Columbus Metropolitan Responds to Hunger: Summer Meals and More

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A child eats a strawberry

A child eats a strawberry at a Columbus Recreation and Parks Department's Summer Food Site. Photo by Julie Pruett, used with permission.

As a library looks ahead to its busiest programming schedule of the year, why would it consider becoming a summer meal site? At Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML), staff realized kids were hungry from the time they arrived at 9am until they left at 5pm. During the summer vacation, these kids and their families didn’t have access to the meals they depend on during the school year.

Early adopters

CML started offering summer meals in 2002 by partnering with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department (CRPD) and its summer meal program. CRPD is the USDA Summer Food Service Program provider for Columbus, OH. Eleven of CML’s 23 locations offered summer meals in 2017; next year, they plan to expand that to 12 locations. The remaining branches are either in communities that do not qualify for summer meals or are partnering with an existing summer meal site.

While some library staff may initially hesitate to start serving summer meals, the benefits are clear and the results are persuasive: Kids are calmer and more able to learn when they’re not hungry.

“Every staff member involved in the summer meals program sees its value,” says Sarah Wright, Youth Services Supervisor at CML’s Main Library and coordinator of the meals program. Sarah adds: “Every year, every branch I’ve talked with says it’s one of the most important programs they do.”

Since offering meals is a different type of programming for libraries, Sarah advises patience in the beginning: “It might start off feeling a little chaotic, but stick with it and find your rhythm for your location.”

Natural fit with summer learning

At CML, the summer meals program is integrated with summer learning and other programming, and each branch coordinates the meals around or into other programming in response to the needs of families. Lunches are available to anyone between the ages of 1-18, so one tactic is to offer storytime for the little kids before lunch and teen reading after lunch. Another approach is to vary the programming from day to day, playing literacy games on one day and having a staff member or volunteers read during the meal on another day. One thing is consistent across all branches, however: On the days that the “Turtle Lady” is scheduled to visit, they need to order extra meals! Each site also signs kids up for Summer Reading Club if they are not already participating.

Expanded nutritional assistance

One possible outcome of adding summer meals to library programming could be that nutritional assistance offerings may expand. In 2016, for example, CML began offering a free after-school snack program Monday through Friday, and they currently offer afterschool snacks at fifteen of its locations in the zip codes with the greatest food insecurity. Just as with their summer meals, children of all ages can participate in the snack program.

Partners do the heavy lifting

The Children’s Hunger Alliance in Ohio is CML’s partner for the snack program. For both the summer meals and the snack program, CML’s program partners are indispensable in supporting staff capacity to feed kids. The primary responsibility of the branches is to refrigerate and serve the food in coordination with other library programming. The partners take care of the heavy lifting with regards to grant funding and reporting so that the libraries can focus on the primary goal of feeding hungry kids with minimal paperwork.

The library is a lifesaver

Sarah regularly hears how much community members value CML’s meal programs, and says the needs are not always visible. She recounted a time when a woman approached her after lunch one day to express her appreciation. She had lost her job, her young daughter’s dad was out of the picture, and they were struggling financially. Her daughter needed extra help working on reading skills and the library was meeting this need while helping to feed her daughter. Tearfully, the woman told Sarah: “I don’t know what we would do without the library. It’s been a lifesaver.”