Good Eats, Great Reads, and Fun Programs

During the summer months away from school, it’s crucial that children have access to healthy meals, safe environments, and books and educational opportunities so they can keep learning. This is the time when children who receive free and reduced-price meals no longer have that resource available to them—and can lose up to three months of reading ability.

The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) and the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) formed a partnership with the Georgia Public Library Service to create “lunch at the library” in 2014. The efforts of these state leaders paved the way for local leaders to offer summer meal programs in nearly 100 public libraries across the state.

One of the goals of this statewide collaboration was to extend summer meal programs into the 22 counties that had none in 2013. Thanks to local leaders stepping up and others reaching out, that number has dropped to just two.

A record amount of Georgia libraries offered “lunch at the library” programs this year. More than 9.9 million meals were served to children during the summer months in 2016 (the most recent year for which data is currently available), marking an 18.5 percent increase in the number of summer meals served between 2014 and 2016.

Felicia Conn-Payton, a resident of College Park, has sponsored summer meal programs at four sites in Fulton and DeKalb Counties for eight years. When she learned that some Georgia counties lacked sponsors, she reached out to DECAL to find out how she could help fill the gap. She got connected with the West Georgia Regional Library System and became a site sponsor in four libraries, reaching children in three counties—two of which had previously lacked summer meal programs.

Conn-Payton’s efforts have had a significant impact in these communities. Whitesburg’s library staff reported that, despite being located across the street from an elementary school, many schoolchildren didn’t take advantage of the library’s programs. Once they began serving food in the summer, many children visited the library for the first time.

Because these libraries have small staffs and lack the capacity to manage meal programs, Conn-Payton hired site supervisors, providing job opportunities to low-income families, including one mother who said she had resorted to “dumpster diving” to feed her family last summer after an injury and a layoff caused both her and her husband to lose their jobs. These four sites were able to serve 175 children each week.

Conn-Payton expanded her reach by utilizing shelf-stable products that don’t require refrigeration. She hired a delivery person who could dispense enough prepackaged food for four days and supplemented these ready-to-eat meals with fresh fruits and vegetables twice a week.

“I wanted to help, so I took a leap of faith,” she said. “I thought the distance would be too far, but it all worked out. When I went to visit the libraries and saw the kids reading and eating, it was awesome.”

Coweta County’s Grantville Branch Library launched “Dining with Books” this summer in partnership with the Rising Phoenix Program. The library served hot and cold meals to children 18 years and younger every weekday for two months. After lunch, children were invited to participate in a fun, educational activity with a healthy snack offered afterward. “Dining with Books” fed more than 700 children and contributed to increased library program attendance and circulation. The community effort includes three teen and three adult volunteers who help deliver meals and welcome families.

“Good eats, great reads, and fun programs made the summer of 2017 a successful one for the Grantville branch library,” said Jimmy Bass, director of libraries in the Coweta County Library System.

Austin Jenkins, the branch manager of the Oglethorpe County Library, jumped at the chance to host a summer meal program. As one of the only public spaces available to children in the rural county, Jenkins saw an opportunity to better serve 600 families living in poverty while also helping to make the library a daily part of the children’s lives. One child came to the lunch program every day, and by the end of summer he was helping the staff set up as well as present other children’s programs.

This past summer, Rockmart Library in Polk County transitioned from offering snacks to sack lunches for children. A computer lab was temporarily transformed into a small cafeteria, and library staff and volunteers created silk flower arrangements to add a cheerful touch. With just one full-time employee, getting to the school district to pick up meals and return leftovers was a challenge—but it was a “labor of love” for branch manager Sharon Cleveland. Several families came for lunch three or more times each week, and more than 850 meals were served.

“We made lasting connections with these kids, and they know their library cares about their health as well as their education,” Cleveland said. “I hope to have better publicity and increase participation next summer.”

Share your story about participating in a “lunch at the library” program this summer. Let us know if you’re interested in learning more about how you can bring this innovative approach to addressing summer learning loss to your community.