Libraries Provide Much Needed Access to Nutrition in the Summer

Find out how to pair summer programs with meals to help kids in your community.

Erin M. Schadt /

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), 13.1 million children under 18 in the United States live in food-insecure households. And even as the number of children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals increases, according to this Food Research and Action Center report "for every 100 low-income children who ate school lunches during the 2014–2015 school year, just 15.8 children, or roughly one in six, participated in the Summer Nutrition Programs in July 2015."

With so many children facing a hungry summer, the USDA funds two federal summer nutrition programs that support meals and snacks for children at sites where at least 50% of children in the area (or who are attending a specific program, say, a summer camp) are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals or at sites that serve primarily migrant children.

Many libraries serve as sites for these summer nutrition programs; if your library isn't currently a meal site in the summer, read on for the stories of three libraries that do offer these programs in a Q&A filled with details, inspiration and advice.

Keturah Cappadonia, Development Administrator and Special Collections Librarian at David A. Howe Public Library in Wellsville, NY, says the library first offered their program, which includes breakfast and lunch meals, in 2016 after their library was contacted by their school district to see if they would host the summer meal program. "A total of 78 meals were offered over a period of eight weeks. 370 children (ages 0-18) ate meals served at the library during this time period. If it helps put it in perspective, the population of our town is 4,769 people." Whether they continue the program this year is still to be determined, however, Cappadonia says, "I think the general feeling here at the library is that the program was a positive one and one which we would like to continue if given the opportunity. I saw it bring new people into the library and also bring more people into the library, which are two goals we are always striving to attain."

Carrie A. Herrmann, Director, Boone County Public Library in Burlington, KY, explained that the library has offered summer meals for five years since it was discovered that their county is considered a food desert and that the number of children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch in their service area is rising. Herrmann says last summer "we saw an average of 25 people each day we offered a meal. At the end of six weeks we had fed 720 individuals." She says they intend to offer the program again in 2017, searching for a grant so that they don’t have to restrict the program to only kids 18 and younger (a requirement of the USDA program). "While staff at the Florence Branch say this program is a lot of work, they believe very strongly in serving the needs of their community," says Herrmann.

Susan Morgan, Circulation/Public Relations, New Castle Public Library (PA), says they too have participated in the USDA summer lunch program for five years and they plan to continue offering the program in the future. "We felt with our summer reading programs that the lunch program was a perfect activity to draw more children to the library and expose them to the activities at the library." The lunches averaged between 20 and 30 children, and attendance has grown each year.

Read on for more on each library's programs and advice they have for libraries considering adding meal programs.

Generally, how does your program work?

Keturah Cappadonia, David A. Howe Public Library (NY): The summer meal program was basically its own program because it was funded by the school district (through the government) and we had to abide by the guidelines set forth by the government. The summer meal program at our library was a twice daily (breakfast and lunch) program offered five days per week for eight weeks.

Our library summer reading program ran for six weeks and had events held at various times. It was impossible for us, with a small staff and small budget, to hold library reading programs every time and day when we were hosting the meal program. But families were always encouraged to look around the library, sign up for library cards and check out books when they came in for the summer meal program. Some of our library summer reading program events did occur directly after or before some of the meals, so we tried to encourage people to attend both events.

"I would encourage any library to strongly consider adding a meal program to their summer programs, if possible. Children really enjoyed coming to the library for lunch, in addition to checking out books and participating in programs." — Keturah Cappadonia, David A. Howe Public Library (NY)

Carrie A. Herrmann, Boone County Public Library (KY): The program is always held in conjunction with our summer reading program. The program has changed over the last several years. For two years the program was held at our Florence Branch and only offered lunch. One year all summer feeding programs were offered at our community stops for our Community Center on Wheels. This involved dinner in the neighborhoods. While we served meals four days per week, it was at a different community each night. Each community was served once per month. 

One year we offered lunch at our Florence Branch three days per week and dinner at the same community area twice per week. This year we returned to lunch at the Florence Branch five times per week. We have always included programming with the lunch. Over time it has morphed to be Family Style Programming whether than just child or teen or adult. We have found this to be a more effective way to interact with our community. For the last three years we have hired two seasonal employees to help plan the lunches and the programs. These have been local teachers who are familiar with the children at our Florence Branch. Programs are planned by the teachers and librarians working together.

Families really like the program. We tied it a couple of times to a visit by the Mobile Pantry from our local FreeStore Feedback. We heard comments from customers about how this helped because they did not where the money was coming from to feed everyone and pay rent and purchase medicine

Susan Morgan, New Castle Public Library (PA): We have scheduled our lunches to immediately follow our Mother Goose Story Time and have incorporated our Wee Build program into the summer food program to provide the children with an activity when they have finished their meal. Many times our Friday lunches are followed by special programs. We also provide a treat (crackers, juice) at the end of the special program.

Did you have special funding or partnerships? If so, can you describe how you connected with partners?

Keturah Cappadonia, David A. Howe Public Library (NY): Our library did not fund the summer meal program at all. The funding for the food program came from our local public school district through funding which they had applied for through the FDA. Our library acted as a partner which provided a public space open to all, located in a central location in our town, and as a destination where families could enjoy other programs and resources during the summer. We also provided in-kind funding through the use of our trash and recycling services and janitorial staff.

Carrie A. Herrmann, Boone County Public Library (KY): For three years, we were part of the Federal Summer Lunch Program as a site with our local school system providing the lunches. However, we had an issue with not feeding the parents/caregivers who came with the children. Under federal guidelines we can only feed children up to age 18. We also had an issue with having to throw away any food left over from the service.  We could not send the food home with the children for another meal. 

Two years ago we switched to seeking grants to offer a summer feeding program for all ages. One year it was a combination of grants from the Freestore FoodBank and Walmart. During summer of 2016, we had a FINRA Foundation grant that allowed us to provide lunch for participants as well as financial literacy programming. We are in the process of seeking grants for the summer of 2017 now.

Susan Morgan, New Castle Public Library (PA): Our lunch program is provided by the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, locally by Lawrence County Community Action Partnership and United Way of Lawrence County. They provide the food for lunch and snacks; we provide the venue, activities and staff to oversee the program. The organizations also provided us with cereal, milk, fruit and snacks for children to take home for the weekend.

Our involvement started when the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank working with our local Lawrence County Community Action Partnership agency sent out information about the program and asking for agencies to serve as a site for the Summer Food Program. Monthly meetings are held year round to keep all of us updated and also to discuss new ways to add to the program and agencies that will partner with us to provide an educational and entertaining summer for the children, as well as a nutritional one. The special programs we offer with our food program often times will bring families to the library that may have felt uncomfortable coming just for the free food.

How did you reach kids and families with the message of the program? And was that successful?

Keturah Cappadonia, David A. Howe Public Library (NY): Our school district partner sent fliers home with all school students and advertised the service on their website. Similarly, our library made and distributed fliers and advertised the program on our website and our social media outlets. We included information about the program on our Summer Reading Program calendar of events, which I think may have been the most effective way of reaching interested people.

Carrie A. Herrmann, Boone County Public Library (KY): We have relied on our local schools to share the information with families in need. Our Community Center on Wheels serves mainly at risk neighborhoods. During community stops, staff have placed door hangers regarding the program on home doors. In addition, the staff at Florence excels at word of mouth marketing. They know their customers and make sure to talk about summer lunch program with customers they feel may need the help. Our attendance generally grows throughout the summer, so we need the people participating are sharing the information with their neighbors and friends. 

Susan Morgan, New Castle Public Library (PA): Advertising for the program was done in-house with flyers, calendars and menus. A kick-off event was held at our middle school to get the children excited about the program. The library participated in that event providing games and activities based on our summer reading theme. The Pittsburgh Community Food Bank provided us with flyers listing all the sites and times throughout the county, as well as flyers specifically  for our library. We included our weekly menus and scheduled lunch activities in the Library News section in the newspaper.

"For me the greatest benefit is seeing the children pick out their food and then watch movies, color or play with blocks. Parents/caregivers have commented that the library days with lunch, snacks and special programs helps to occupy the time and minds of their little ones from day to day—the children look forward to it!" — Susan Morgan, New Castle Public Library (PA)  

Did you get pushback from any staff or organizationally? And how did you overcome that?

Keturah Cappadonia, David A. Howe Public Library (NY): I would say there was little to no pushback. When the idea and plan was first announced, some staff were skeptical of the idea of having food served in the library. But all staff agreed that offering free meals to children who were in need is a great program to have at the library. Staff enjoyed seeing the families come in to eat together and there was really no negative pushback once the program was up and running. The school district provided cafeteria staff to deliver the meals and to stay and supervise each mealtime. There was not a great deal of stress placed on our library staff to be "cafeteria monitors," which was what one of the initial worries had been.

Carrie A. Herrmann, Boone County Public Library (KY): We did have to justify how the feeding program fit in with our mission, "Discover, Explore, Experience a lifetime of learning at Boone County Public Library." Learning cannot happen when you are hungry. By tying the meal program to literacy, STEM and financial literacy programs we have made our case. It helped that while we were making this argument a local news channel did an in depth several night investigative story on the poverty issue in a particular census tract in our service area. They highlighted the needs and resources available, including the library's program.

Susan Morgan, New Castle Public Library (PA): The staff involved was kept to a minimum so as not to compromise service in our areas of the library. All staff/volunteers involved in the program were required to have all clearances on file with us. We also relied on the Senior Workers and High School Interns provided to us by local agencies.

What advice would you give to libraries considering adding a meal program to their summer learning programs?

Keturah Cappadonia, David A. Howe Public Library (NY): I would encourage any library to strongly consider adding a meal program to their summer programs, if possible. Children really enjoyed coming to the library for lunch, in addition to checking out books and participating in programs. They seemed to view it as a real “treat”! We are lucky enough at our library to have an outdoor terrace with tables and seating where we can have the meal program on nice days and it really is a nice sight to see children and caregivers picnicking outside of the library.

Library staff know we are helping provide healthy meals to children who may not be getting them elsewhere and are helping add another layer of community service to our offerings. We received many nice compliments about the program from patrons and community members who weren't necessarily parents of children able to utilize the program, but who appreciated that we were helping make it available in our community. It really felt like we were partnering in an action that was 100% for the welfare of the people in our town.

Carrie A. Herrmann, Boone County Public Library (KY): Make sure you have capacity: financial, space and staffing. Looking for grants every year is not the optimal way to offer this program. I can justify the staff and the programs in my budget, but I have not yet found a way to justify adding the meals to my budget. Make sure you have staff that support this initiative.    

Susan Morgan, New Castle Public Library (PA): This is a very worthwhile program with little cost to the library if partnerships are developed. Many times, we see children and their parents return in the fall after the lunch program is over. The partnerships we have developed have created library awareness in the agencies and have led to other projects with them.

For me the greatest benefit is seeing the children pick out their food and then watch movies, color or play with blocks. Parents/caregivers have commented that the library days with lunch, snacks and special programs helps to occupy the time and minds of their little ones from day to day—the children look forward to it! It's nice to be part of a program that is able to provide healthy lunches and snacks to children who may not have that opportunity once school is no longer in session.


Photos, from top:

Happy participants on the patio at David A. Howe Public Library in Wellsville, NY.

A bustling summer storytime at the Florence Branch of Boone County Public Library in Kentucky.

On a rainy day, children eat indoors at David A. Howe Public Library.

Kids ready for meal time at New Castle Public Library, New Castle, PA.

Programming is a key pairing at the meal program hosted by Boone County Public Library. This photo is from the program they brought to Mosby's Point Mobile Home Community.

Summer Food Program Case Study

For more insight on what it's like to serve as a USDA summer meal site, read the experience of Henry County Library System in Georgia, which will participate in their third year of the program in 2017. 

Audry Flinn, Children's Services Specialist at the system, offers this advice, "Library partners, continue to do what you do best. Direct your efforts to provide quality summer reading programs to your patrons as you always have. Focus your attention on reaching young readers. Should you choose to participate in the summer food service program, you will find that the food service details will likely fall into place, and both reading and free lunch programs will be equally successful."

Read the full article Case Study: Henry County Library System Provides Summer Food Service Program.