Free Lunch at the Public Library!

Here is some information that I shared with some librarians a few months ago, and I’m sharing it again in case there are any other librarians out there reading this who would like more information on providing this at their libraries:

Host a Summer Lunch Program at Your Library

In partnership with Newark Baptist Church, Wayne ARC, Week of Hope, Newark Housing Authority, and other programs, we offered a free lunch every Monday-Thursday of July 2014 at Newark Public Library. The lunches were funded by New York State, prepared by Wayne ARC, and served by Week of Hope volunteers. This program brought us many new faces, and I hope to continue it next summer as well. An impressive 267 children enjoyed lunches at Newark Public Library throughout the month of July. Many of these children were new faces, and most of them started attending more library programs after attending the lunch program.

Why offer Summer Lunch:

The library is a comfortable site: Many summer lunch sites are located in churches, and some people might not be as comfortable in a specific church than in a neutral community space like the library. Also, when patrons come to the library, it’s not obvious if they’re just coming for the free lunch, which can take away any possible self-consciousness.

There is a real need for it: According to hungersolutionsny.org:

“During the school year, over 1.1 million children and teens across our state rely on school meals to power their learning. However, when school is out – both after school and over summer vacation – many low-income children experience a nutritional void. “

“Low-income children and teenagers who lack access to quality and consistent food are likely to be sick more often, have less energy, and be less focused on learning. Other linked issues include hyperactivity, anxiety, undernutrition, and even weight gain.”

The program brings in new library users: We noticed that many of our summer lunch attendees were not previously regular library users, but because of this program, they came into the library more often for lunches and other library programs.

How I Did It:

  1. Called Hunger Solutions New York and asked for details on how to participate.
    1. Asked if my community qualifies. Qualification is based on the poverty level.
    2. Asked for the contact info of nearby organizations already offering free lunch
  2. Got in touch with the different sites to find out who their site sponsors were
  3. Got in touch with the site sponsors and asked if they would be willing to add our library as a site
  4. Once a site sponsor (Wayne ARC) was willing to add our library as a site, I set up a meeting with the person in charge to talk about the specifics.
    1. Will we serve breakfast, lunch, snack, or supper?
    2. When and where will we serve the lunches?
    3. Who makes, delivers, and serves the food?
    4. Who sets up, cleans up, and records statistics?
  5. Confirm the details. Here is what we decided:
    1. We served lunch in the Community Room, every Monday through Thursday at 12pm in the Newark Public Library Community Room
    2. Wayne ARC prepared the lunches
    3. Week of Hope Volunteers delivered, served, cleaned up, and recorded statistics.
  6. Decide how to integrate the meal with your programs to increase attendance
    1. We had our lunch program from 12:30-1:00, immediately preceding our daily 1:00 programs.
  7. Spread the word!
    1. Include the free lunch program on your event calendars, create separate flyers, and tell everyone about it!

How It Went/Tips

Observations

  1. An impressive 267 children enjoyed lunches at Newark Public Library throughout the month of July. That’s an average of over 15 kids per day!
  2. Many of the families that came to our lunch program were not library regulars, but ended up coming to many of our other programs throughout the summer.
  3. We found that some families even got lunches at more than one site per day, which really demonstrated to us the need for this type of program.

Week of Hope Volunteers

  1. We got very lucky that the Week of Hope folks were already delivering meals to different sites in Newark, so we just chose a time slot for them to come to our library. There may not be a program like this in your area, so it is possible you will have to find the volunteers yourself, or volunteers from one of the other sites will be able to help you out.
  2. Week of Hope is a religious service program, where volunteers from all over the country spend a week doing different community service projects. Although they are from a religious organization, their service and conversation was separate from that.
  3. Because we were at the end of their day, the Week of Hope volunteers had some extra time to kill and they stayed and helped out with our 1:00 programs, which was a big help.

Planning

  1. I definitely recommend calling Hunger Solutions first, for a good overview of the program’s structure, and to see if your community qualifies. Also, they have the most accurate and up-to-date information about the sites, which I found to be different from what I saw online.
  2. Getting in touch with the sites and site sponsors was a lot of work and got confusing at points. I even got turned down by one person from an organization, and then was called back by someone else in the same organization with accurate information. You really have to call around until you get in touch with the right person
  3. When planning around your programs, I would recommend more space between the lunch time and the next program, for eating, cleanup, and setup time. Also consider whether you would like to have programs before or after your mealtime.

Promotion

  1. Make sure you plan early enough so that you have everything finalized in time to include the lunch program on your summer reading calendars
  2. Make it clear that the lunches are only for kids and teens, to avoid having to turn away adults.
  3. Create a special flyer for the program. I had a flyer that one of the other sites made that included the location and serving times for the other sites, which was great.
  4. This year, I plan to send out a press release, post about it on social media, and distribute flyers everywhere.
  5. If kids are in the library for other reasons, offer them a lunch! I found that many parents were surprised and impressed that we were offering this program, and once they knew about it, they came back again and again.
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