The Lunch Program for Kids at York County Library

Public library offers free summertime meals to low-income school-age children

I had the chance to chat with librarian Beth Franklin at Beaver Creek Arizona Public Library a few weeks ago about how she dreams of expanding her library's services to include free meals for hungry kids in her rural community. Just after that, I came across a piece in the York Dispatch about Martin Library in York City, Pennsylvania, outside of Harrisburg. They have figured out a way to do just that.

Each summer, when school lunches are no longer available, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program fills the gap, offering free summertime meals to low-income school-age children. There are thousands of community centers, nonprofits, and other organizations nationwide, including some libraries, that offer free summer meals through this program. However, less than one-fifth of students nationwide who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches use the program.

Challenges

The Summer Food Service Program imposes some conditions on meal providers, so it's a challenge for libraries to serve free meals to hungry children.

  • Summer meal providers must have an area where the recipients must eat the food. The kids can't take the food with them. This requires that meal providers maintain an eating area. Most libraries don't allow patrons to eat in the library, so this entails a real change in operations.
  • Also, the Summer Food Service Program reimburses providers on a per-meal basis. This results in funding challenges in which the cost for providing meals is often break-even at best.
  • Finally, to be successful, the meal locations need to be a draw in themselves, especially in rural areas like York County, Pennsylvania. It turns out that recreation centers and libraries are pretty ideal in this regard.

How Martin Library Makes It Work

Obviously, the library has had to create a food preparation and eating space inside their building for serving meals. They created an eating area within the children's section at the library. One hundred percent of York City School District students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, so any kids who show up for the free breakfasts or lunches on weekdays are served. No identification is required.

Paula Gilbert, director of youth services for Martin Library, says that the library gets the word out about the program to parents and students through many channels. They post on social media and the library website and deliver a summer mailer to 43,000 homes. The library justifies the expense of the program because kids who come in for the meals often stay in the library for other programs. The library's summer reading program, the computer lab, and the dance camp are all available to them. It's OK for parents to drop off their children and do other things because they trust the Martin Library as a safe, well-supervised place.

Despite the many additional benefits, librarian Paula Gilbert says, "Simply for bridging the hunger divide in York City, the program is worth keeping at the library."

Additional Help from TechSoup: The Range App

TechSoup's Caravan Studios, our special program to make mobile apps, has created a free app called Range. Range is a tool that anyone in your library can use to quickly find the nearest place where free summer meals are served. Data about free meal sites is collected and supplied by the nonprofit WhyHunger.

Range helps address the lack of awareness by eligible students about free summer meal programs. The app was made with financial support from Microsoft Philanthropies. We hope you take advantage of this free resource. Read the original TechSoup for Libraries announcement of Range.

If you have a food program at your library, please tell us about it by clicking Add new comment below.

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