Programs for Culinary Literacy at the Gwinnett County Public Library

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Flyer for An Evening of Books, Beer & Bluegrass

Flyer for An Evening of Books, Beer & Bluegrass, used with permission
from GCPL

The number of libraries offering garden and culinary-focused programming have been “growing” and we love to highlight the ways libraries are innovating in this area. We recently had the opportunity to speak with staff at the Gwinnett County Public Library (GA) about their low-cost, high-impact, culinary-focused programming, and how they’ve leveraged partnerships to create a sustainable commitment to culinary literacy. Marketing and communications manager, Dee Driver, and adult programming manager, Denise Auger, shared how they’re improving culinary literacy in their community.

When Auger’s manager asked her to explore ways to bring food and nutrition topics to programs at their library, she began by collaborating with authors, mostly local cookbook authors. These authors bring their expertise to presentations at the library, often with live cooking demos or participatory cooking sessions. Auger has been hosting cookbook authors at the library for 8 years, many of them award-winning, including James Beard award-winner, Steven Raichlen, for a Book Talk and Signing which drew 100 attendees!

The library has hosted cookbook authors who are touring major cities and Auger emphasized that the library has rarely had to pay authors for their visits. The library also benefits from many authors who are local to the Atlanta area. She recognizes that libraries in smaller communities may not be close enough to book tour stops, but with so many cookbook authors out there, she encourages others to learn about authors who are local to your area, and to reach out and make those connections. Some local authors have taught writer’s workshops including one called, Recipe for Successful Cookbook Authors. Authors are also welcome to sell their books at the event, providing the possibility of a collaboration with local booksellers.

Partnerships are Key

Flyer for An Evening of Words & Wine

An Evening of Words & Wine, used with permission from GCPL

Auger shared that the key to successful culinary programming is partnerships. “From authors to food banks, and from the local Gwinnett Health and Human Services to the Chamber of Commerce, partners can provide financial support for the venue or the authors, or they might just be listed on the marketing materials. These partnerships, along with in-kind donations, allow the library to provide these programs at zero expense to the library.” She encourages libraries to look at the community and potential partners and identify those who will also benefit from the partnership, so it’s a win-win for all. “Who is in your community that will also win from the partnership, what does the library need, what can the library offer them, and who would care?” They’ve had particular success partnering with the Chamber of Commerce, art galleries, pubs and restaurants, and food expos.

The Chamber of Commerce has partnered with the library, funding two programs hosted at local venues. An Evening of Books, Beer and Bluegrass will be hosted in a new local brewery with authors presenting on the history of beer and the prohibition. The event is free to the public (21+), includes live music, and the Chamber will pay for the first pour for 100 people! The Chamber will also be partnering on a program, An Evening of Words & Wine, hosted at a local art gallery, with the Chamber paying for transportation for the author speaking about wine history, and the gallery providing the wine.  

Auger encourages libraries to investigate trade shows or expos that might be coming to your area. She approached a cooking expo a few years ago and offered to bring cookbook authors or chef authors to speak and do cooking demos. She’s since brought multiple award-winning authors, many of them local, to the expo, spreading the word about all the additional culinary programming and resources that the library has to offer.

The library has also partnered with the local College or University Extension service who have presented free herb and vegetable gardening classes. And a successful partnership with the local college and the American Cancer Society brought a cancer prevention in cooking demonstration to the library. Auger emphasized that it’s important to know your community and to target certain events to occur in communities that need them the most. This event was most successful in communities where there are higher rates of cancer and heart disease due to cooking methods, as identified through data collected by the University Extension agency partnering on the program. Attendees with limited means were also provided with a coupon for a free mammogram. In seeking out partnerships, look for organizations that align with the library’s commitment to healthy communities, like the office for Health and Human Services. Even if it just means their logos are included in promotional materials, these collaborations can be more effective in reaching communities that can most benefit from food and health-related events.

Auger also recommends that when planning culinary-related events, to be sure to look ahead on calendars to identify observances or celebrations that provide a culinary connection. In November, the library celebrated Native American Heritage Month, with a Cherokee master gardener, who presented a one-hour program on local herbs and indigenous plants. For the second hour, a local chef was invited (and paid, in this case) to do a cooking demo of a few simple recipes from, The Mitsitam Café Cookbook: Recipes from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Tower Gardens

Tower Garden in library

Tower Garden, image courtesy GCPL on Facebook

Dee Driver shared that culinary programming really took off at Gwinnett County Public Library when they installed Tower Gardens, one at each of the 15 branches, funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. A tower garden is an indoor aeroponic growing system using water and minerals, artificial light and no soil. The tower gardens provide fresh greens and herbs, and libraries provide programs for patrons of all ages, through STEM/STEAM lessons and cooking demos, including sessions with local chefs who teach patrons about the health benefits of simple salads made from ingredients grown on the tower gardens. Some of the local co-ops and restaurants even come to harvest the greens to use in their own programs or in dishes on their menus. The tower gardens provide community access to a living, working, aromatic and bubbling garden, and an opportunity to learn about many topics, everything from food insecurity to pollination.  

Driver also emphasized the importance of partnerships, including those they’ve developed through early literacy initiatives. Storytimes hosted at a local garden include stories on plants and garden animals, and hands-on opportunities to plant, tend and harvest the plants from the special Storytime Plot.

Top Tips for Culinary Programs

We asked Auger and Driver for their tips on planning culinary programs. The top tip is to make sure to know your specific community’s needs and then look for those in the community, individuals and organizations, who can help you be successful in meeting those needs, whether as presenters or promoters. But Auger emphasized, “when you partner, don’t lose control of your programs.” Be clear with expectations, provide regular and clear communication with partners, and be sure to highlight and celebrate the wins for all involved. Local businesses, restaurants, bakeries, breweries and galleries, are all eager to get their name out through the library programs.

The second tip is that you don’t need a kitchen to be successful - none of the GCPL branches have full kitchens. They do have some table-top equipment, but for the most part, guest chefs bring their own supplies, and the demonstrations are often limited to simple recipes that can be prepared without elaborate equipment. For example, the ‘kids in the kitchen’ events hosted in branches recently involved making parfaits, no appliances needed. One program involved moms and kids making jam, and in another, during National Candy Month, participants made lollipops, and the gingerbread house competition is always a hit. And remember that you don’t need to host the event at the library. Local businesses are happy to be the venue for your library-hosted events, and they can often accommodate the number of attendees and to provide space with the needed equipment.

Planning for culinary programming is ongoing, with long-term planning for the food expos, shared planning with the Chamber of Commerce on their programs, and local in-branch planning for smaller initiatives focused on each of the branch’s unique community needs.

Another tip is to gather data to inform future programming. While GCPL doesn’t always formally gather community input to evaluate their programs, they do keep track of the numbers of attendees and the comments, whether on social media or word of mouth, e.g. “You should offer this again!” Driver has gathered input via surveys, and though she’s mostly interested in how attendees heard about the event, she also asks what they liked/didn’t like. The library tracks all hosted events, noting the day/time/attendance, and then uses that information to inform future planning. For example, an event offered during rush hour was shifted the next time, based on comments about there being too much traffic to get there in time. It’s always important to debrief on programs, asking things like, “Why didn’t it work?” or “Where else should we try it?”

And finally, have fun with the food! The beauty of culinary-related programming is that everyone eats! The options are limitless and the approaches adaptable to be of interest to any age or palate. Food and nutrition literacy is critical to maintaining healthy communities, and libraries can help connect partners, old and new, to build connections with your patrons, and those partnerships can help grow awareness of all your library has to offer.

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