Gather 2 Grow: Bridging the Summer Meal Gap at Libraries

brothers hold up summer meals

On a hot mid-July day, Donna and her three kids escaped the heat by attending Grant District Library’s morning story hour. Afterwards, her kids eagerly took lunches from the librarians, who provide them daily as part of the food bank’s new Gather 2 Grow program.

Donna's kids pose with their food

“We love the library, so it’s a good space to pick the meals up,” Donna said. “With food so expensive, it’s nice. It’s quick and easy to stop by.”

Stacy, another mom who visits the library, concurred.

“It’s the best of both worlds because you get exposure to the library and books, and also get food,” she said. “The books feed their brains and the food feeds their minds!”

Donna, Stacy and their kids are among the many families who need a little extra help putting food on their kids’ plates this summer. For many parents like them, the sudden loss of school meals means a bigger grocery expense—on top of other costs summer brings, like childcare.

Gather 2 Grow aims to fill this gap, helping ensure no kids go without lunch in the summer. Available to all youth through age 18 and any adult with disabilities through age 26, the lunches include simple snack items like applesauce, meat and cheese sticks, crackers, nut butter and dried fruit.

Growing to Serve More Kids

Last year, Feeding America West Michigan partnered with 15 Kent District Libraries, including a bookmobile location, providing thousands of summer lunches to kids in need. This year, the program has a new name—Gather 2 Grow—and has expanded to four additional counties in our service area. We aim to continue growing the program across our service area in future years.

This summer, Gather 2 Grow expanded by more than just counties. The program is also serving many more kids than originally expected. All Gather 2 Grow sites have seen an increase in attendance from last year and the overall program has served more than twice as many kids.

Matt and Beth of the Fruitport Library pass food out to kids.

At first, Matt, director of the Fruitport Library, wasn’t sure the need would be there, and didn’t even expect anyone to attend on one of the first days. Then, he saw a line of families waiting for food.

Jessica, a librarian in Grant, similarly wasn’t sure many families would attend.

“I wondered ‘do people really need help?’ but people have expressed that it’s a big help for them. We had a mother that was almost crying saying it was just a big help to her—she has five boys, all middle school and up.”

Filling Gaps in Service

A contributing factor to high participation could be because Gather 2 Grow is more accessible for some families compared to the state’s summer lunch program, Meet Up & Meet Up. Although an essential program (especially for kids attending summer school), Meet Up & Eat Up lunch sites provide meals only to kids who are present to sit down. At Gather 2 Grow sites, families can pick up meals to bring home to kids.

A library lunch held by Sandy shows sunflower seeds, graham crackers, juice and more

This is particularly helpful for people in situations like Sandy’s. She’s a grandma who still has two of her own children at home; plus, she’s a foster parent. Her grandkids live nearby and visit when their parents are at work. It’s tough at times for her to afford to feed all of them. Being able to drive over to the Fruitport Library and pick up meals to bring back to the kids in her care makes it much easier for her to ensure they get enough to eat.

Having more options and fewer restrictions enables more kids to access the food they need. In 2021, 50 percent of all kids in Michigan qualified for free or reduced-price school meals, but only 15 percent accessed free summer meals. Gather 2 Grow aims to increase the percentage of kids nourished by summer meal programs in the food bank’s service area.

Beth, a former librarian in Fruitport, believes Gather 2 Grow fits in perfectly with the services libraries already provide to their communities.

“Food connects with people,” she said. “This exemplifies what libraries do. They’re the bridge between people.”

Feeding America West Michigan is glad to provide a bridge—between kids, families and the food they need. Support from Belmont Engineered Plastics and Chick-fil-A is helping us serve kids this summer. We couldn’t do this work without generous supporters like them!

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Story written by Communication and Marketing Specialist Juliana Ludema.