Telling the Story of Food: Why Food Literacy Matters to Your Library

Rebecca Antill, Youth Services Consultant, South Carolina State Library /

Rebecca Antill was a presenter in the WebJunction webinar, Strengthening Communities: Food Access at Your Library. Here, she shares additional information about food literacy programming and resources made available through the South Carolina State Library. Join Rebecca and South Carolina libraries for a WebJunction webinar on June 9, Food Access and Seed Libraries in Rural Public Libraries.

two people presenting cooking demonstration
Jennifer Jean and Rebecca Antill prepare apple slices for a virtual sampling
at the South Carolina State Library

Over the past three and a half years of our food literacy initiative, SC Read Eat Grow, the one question I have heard over and over again is, “Why should a library be involved with food and nutrition?” For the South Carolina State Library and our statewide partner organizations, the answer is simple: food is a basic need for every person. Yet there is an incredible amount of information and ignorance surrounding the story of our food—how it is grown, the journey to your plate, how it affects your health now and later, and how the food we grow affects the planet at large as well as your neighborhood farmer. As a community institution that provides information, along with the knowledge to navigate that information, libraries are an ideal resource to bridge this gap. So why not libraries and food?

There are as many ways for your library to be involved with food and health literacy programming as there are new cookbooks published each year! The SC Read Eat Grow food literacy initiative helps give library staff the training and materials they need to provide relevant programming in their community, whether that is a healthy cooking program for senior adults, a pre-diabetes awareness event, DIY container gardening, food preservation, or using vegetables to talk about colors in preschool storytime. Using LSTA funds,* we purchased a Charlie Cart mobile kitchen unit (see photo below) that we lend to libraries to use, and added a second cart in 2019 thanks to a grant from the Network of National Libraries of Medicine.** We also have smaller portable Kitchen in a Box kits that are more accessible for our small rural library branches to use. We have at least one training for library staff each month that specifically addresses an aspect of food, nutrition, or health literacy—many of which are presented by our partners—to help libraries bring food literacy programming to their community.

Charlie Cart mobile kitchen unit
Teens at the Chesterfield County Public Library prepare healthy
snacks using the Charlie Cart from the South Carolina State Library

Partnerships have been essential to the success of SC Read Eat Grow. In South Carolina, we have three regional providers of SNAP-Ed, the educational arm of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides low-income families with food benefits. These educators have been invaluable to our libraries, hosting grocery store tours, family cooking programs, senior adult health events, and so much more. The statewide 4-H representatives and master gardeners from the Clemson Cooperative Extension have also made a variety of programs available to our libraries at no cost. Regional food banks, community produce shares, and farmers markets have supplied ingredients for programming and instructors. Community health centers, medical libraries, and local fire departments are just a few of the collaborators that libraries have reached out to in order to create relevant programming that helps their patrons in real time. How do we know the programs are relevant? The data backs us up—food and health literacy programming has high participation in all the libraries offering them, and surveys report that a high percentage of people learn a new skill or gain new information.

SC Read Eat Grow cooking demo
Rebecca Antill reads a poem about balance before preparing a
healthier take on collard greens for the New Year

If food literacy programming is something that you are interested in but you have no idea where to start, I encourage you to take a look at our SC Read Eat Grow LibGuide: This is just a tiny snapshot of everything that is happening in South Carolina, but it will give you some ideas. Don’t be afraid to start small and work your way up. If you are concerned about liability because of allergies or having knives in the library, talk to a partner organization, or reach out to your local department of health and find out what they recommend. Consider being a Summer Feeding site for the students in your community this summer, or providing after-school snacks this fall with your grab-n-go bags. Still uncertain? Check out the new book from Hillary Dodge, Gather ‘Round the Table: Food Literacy Programs, Resources, and Ideas for Libraries, which was released in 2020 by ALA Editions. And do not hesitate to contact me. I’m always excited to talk with library staff about one of my passions—how to tell the story of your food.

*“This project is made possible by a Library Services and Technology Act grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services administered by the South Carolina State Library.”

**“This project has been funded in whole or in part with Federal funds from the Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, under Grant Number UG4LM012340 with the University of Maryland, Baltimore.”