Library-goers usually expect books, quiet librarians and more books during their visit – not lunch being served to children facing hunger.
The librarians at the Kent District Library in Comstock Park may appreciate a quiet place to read, but they’re anything but quiet when it comes to speaking up against food insecurity.
In the summer of 2018, three boys spent nearly every day reading books and playing video games at the library. None of them brought lunch. So Ashley, Laura and the other librarians took the boys under their wings, making them PB&J sandwiches with ingredients purchased using their own money.
This summer, they partnered with Feeding America West Michigan and Meet Up & Eat Up to serve lunch to any child in need – without dipping into their own pockets.
In Kent County, 1 in 7 children face food insecurity. According to MI School Data, more than 50,000 kids in the county receive free or reduced lunch throughout the school year. As a program of the Michigan Department of Education, Meet Up & Eat Up ensures these children are still provided with a lunch to eat at meal sites like the library when school’s not in session.
At first, Ashley thought the program would be too time consuming to run, and she wasn’t sure if the food would be healthy or if the kids would like it.
“I was a stick in the mud,” she said.
She changed her mind after seeing how easy to “prepare” the meals were: She simply drove five minutes down the road to Feeding America West Michigan and picked up a week’s worth of nicely packaged, non-perishable meals. What’s more, the food was healthy and kid-approved. By the end of summer, Ashley fell in love with the program and how it aligns with the librarians’ values to “give until it hurts.” She is eager to run it again next summer.
Each weekday from June 10 to August 23, the library served meals to around 20 children. The librarians included parents by serving lemon water, offering extra fruit and creating a sociable atmosphere.
Many of these families made a day of their visit to the library. They could bring their little ones to morning “storytime” before lunch, visit the park and stay through naptime. Spending more time at the library means families are more likely to check out books and, Ashley explained, “more likely to have that positive interaction with their family of reading a book together.”
Free books and shelter from the heat are in abundance at the library, so it’s often a place of refuge for those who have nowhere else to go. Naturally, many of these same people face hunger, but even though Ashley is used to people seeking refuge at the library, she wasn’t aware of just how big the need is. This summer taught her how, sometimes, a family’s need is clear; other times, it isn’t.
“I didn’t know how many ‘storytime’ families actually need help,” Ashley said. “You can’t always tell by what someone’s wearing or if a kid has cookies on their face – because all kids have cookies on their face.”
“It’s not that lunch is expensive per say, but it adds up,” she said. The ability to grab and go means even families with lots of kids can provide healthy food without the fuss or cost.
Ashley has even brought her own kids to the program on a day she wasn’t working. This enabled her to encourage parents to come.
“If I can come, you can come,” she told them.
“I found we were up against these invisible barriers, where families thought it wasn’t for them – ‘oh, I’m not poor enough,’” she explained. “But the truth is, they might be. They can use the support.”
According to the Council on Community Pediatrics and the Committee on Nutrition, healthy eating is especially essential for young children. Children who live in food-insecure households – even ones that are just barely over the threshold “are likely to be sick more often, recover from illness more slowly and be hospitalized more frequently.”
One behavioral health technician brings her client, a small boy, to Meet Up & Eat Up, because his parents pack him only ramen for lunch.
“I like this because there’s more variety,” she said. “I give him the choice between ramen and coming here, and he usually chooses here.”
This story came from one of four Kent District Library branches that Feeding America West Michigan partnered with this summer. The food bank managed all of the logistics for these sites – including Meet Up & Eat Up applications, reporting, site supervision and, of course, procuring the prepackaged meals.
Generous partners and volunteers – like librarians who refuse to be quiet in the face of hungry children – inspire the food bank as it continues to work toward eradicating hunger in its service area.
Story written by Juliana Ludema, Communication Assistant