Serving Up Meals and Books

kids eating lunch

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 hunger.

librarians reading books

In the summer of 2018, they got to know three boys who 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.

Last 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.

Ashley quickly 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 this coming summer.

In Kent County, 1 in 7 children faces 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.

kids eating lunch

Last summer, the library served meals to around 20 children each weekday. 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. Last summer taught her how, sometimes, a family’s need is clear; other times, it isn’t.

An assortment of food sits on a table at a Meet Up & Eat Up site.

“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 se, 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.”

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 in the summer of 2019.

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. This year, even more libraries in our service area are planning to participate.

Generous partners and volunteers — like librarians who refuse to be quiet in the face of hungry children — inspire the food bank as we continue to work toward eradicating hunger in our service area.

To find meal sites near you, text “Summer Meals” to 97779. To support programs like this, donate here.