Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Let’s Talk Teens, Food and Programming

This is Food Allergy Awareness Week, which seems like a good time for me to revisit my thoughts regarding serving food at teen programs, which seems like a constant work in progress. Back in 2011, prompted in part by my own personal struggles as a mom to a child with extreme food allergies, I wrote an article in VOYA discussing how we – YA librarians – shouldn’t have so much food in our teen programs. It’s an article I still mostly stand by, though with some modifications. But first, let me share with you some of the various conversations I have been having that involve food that have really been leading me to rethink all things food and programming related.

1. Food, Programs and Hungry Teens

I recently was having a discussion with a staff member who objected to serving food at programs because it was a waste of money. Although I have concerns about food for food allergy reasons, I recognize that for many of our library patrons hunger is a real issue and it’s hard for our teens to be engaged in a library program if they are hungry or stressed out about food insecurity issues. We can’t solve their ongoing food issues, but serving food at a program can help eliminate immediate hunger pangs so they can engage and feel at peace for the duration of the program. Having food at a program not only meets a food need, it helps the patron better meet their recreational and educational needs because for this brief time they are able to engage. This hunger doesn’t even have to be a food insecurity issue, it could just be it’s after school and it’s been 5 hours since I had my 20 minute lunch issue. Immediate and long term hunger issues are things we need to consider when deciding whether or not to invest part of our programming resources into serving food.

2. Food and Religion

Kaye M. recently shared on Twitter a series of stories about food handlers trying to force her Muslim family members and friends to eat pork products through deception. I have never thought about food issues in terms of religious issues before, a major failing on my part to be sure. But many religions have food restrictions, sometimes permanently and sometimes for a short duration of time like Lent. It’s important for those of us serving the public to be aware that food restrictions exist and to be respectful of them. And please, let’s all remember it is never okay to force or deceive someone about the things they are putting into their body, it is dangerous, disrespectful and an incredible personal violation of one’s personal autonomy.





3. Food Allergies

Now 6, this is a graphic I put together when Thing 2 was 2 to help explain the food issues we were facing

Current research suggests that 1 in 13 kids has some type of a food allergy. These can range from mildly crippling to life threatening. As the parent to a child with non-anaphylactic allergies let me assure you the worst thing you can do is to try and suggest that non-life threatening allergies are not a big deal. Exposure to food allergies causes a range of symptoms that cause discomfort, health issues and generally impact one’s ability to thrive. My child’s food allergies were so severe that she had lots of internal damage that caused her constant pain and so destroyed her gi system that for a period of time she was not properly digesting her food and absorbing the nutrients; she went from being in the 90th percentile to the 4th in the course of 6 months as we tried to figure out what foods she was allergic to and tried to eliminate them from her diet. At the same time she cried 24/7 due to the pain and fell behind developmentally because she didn’t have time to worry about learning her ABCs and 123s. And yet, through it all, people still suggested it was not that big of an issue because she didn’t have anaphylactic reactions. All food allergy issues should be respected because they all present a host of issues for the individual. One good thing about working with Middle Grade and High School students is that they tend to be aware of their food allergies and are capable of making informed decisions if given  the proper information to do so. Although it is worth mentioning that a person can present with a food reaction suddenly and without previous knowledge. Heather Booth keeps all packaging for the food and has it available for a program if someone needs to read the ingredients, which is a great suggestion.

4. Disordered Eating, Body Image and Food Issues

When talking about food I also want to make sure that we acknowledge that many teens have complicated issues with food and their body image. This is not necessarily something we will ever know about in our individual teens, but we need to keep in mind that this is a real issue for many of our teens.

5. Food Means Time, Space, Storage & Handling and, Of Course, Money

We all know that food comes with a great cost, and not just a financial cost. Someone has to go and buy the food and your time equals money. You have to have a way to properly store then serve the food, which is a safety issue. You may be subject to local health department restrictions regarding handling and serving food, be sure to investigate them before buying and serving food. And the food itself is not cheap by any means. These are additional issues surrounding food that libraries need to keep in mind when considering when, how, how much and what kinds of food to include in our teen programming.

So where does this leave us with regards to food in teen programs?

I have worked in libraries that served food and those that forbid it, and I am the first to tell you that having food available does make a difference. The old adage of “if you feed them, they will come” does hold a lot of truth. And food based programs are fun and incredibly popular. But here are some of the rules I have developed for having food at programs that I recommend all libraries consider implementing If you have any additional ones, please share them with me in the comments.

1. No Nuts Not Ever Seriously Don’t Do It Please

Nut allergies are notoriously one of the most severe allergies. If you are going to have food at a program, please consider not having any peanut or tree nut foods, including anything with peanut butter. And I say this as a person who eats peanuts daily and never met a peanut butter cookie she didn’t like. This rule is just about safety, for your teens and you.

2. Know Your Food Allergy Basics

Just be aware of the current statistics and basic information like the top 8 allergens. Food Allergy and Research Education (FARE) is a good basic starting point.

Food Allergy Infographic from FARE: ww.foodallergy.org/infographic#.VVIgMJN_TzR

3. Know the Signs of an Anaphylactic Reaction

Many people have reactions that don’t include anaphylaxis, but analphylaxis is fast and deadly, responding quickly and appropriately can mean the difference between life and death. Immediately call 911 whenever you suspect that someone may be having an anaphylactic reaction. As part of a staff training day have a local nurse come in and talk about food allergies, anaphylaxis and how to administer an epi pen. Consider having a section on what to do in case of an allergy emergency as part of your staff safety protocols and training. FARE has a good one page document here that you can print out and include in your staff training. This is also where developing a relationship with our teens comes in handy, learn who the teens in your library are that have food allergies and whether or not they carry an epi pen on them that you may have to administer in an emergency.

4. Include Food in Your Marketing Materials

If you are going to include food in a program, consider putting this information on your marketing materials so patrons can make informed decisions about attending or not. If you know what specific foods you will be serving, consider putting this information in your marketing as well. If we believe information is power then maybe we owe it to our patrons to give them as much information as possible to make the best decisions for them regarding their health and safety at our programs.

5. Have a Variety of Food Options

Pizza is cheap and easy, but it also contains 2 of the top 8 allergens – dairy and gluten. Cookies and cupcakes are another staple of teen programming, but in addition to having food allergy concerns – hello gluten and often dairy! – they are also an issue for a country facing an obesity and health crisis on the scale that the U.S. currently is. So in addition to these items, consider adding some alternatives on your menu, like gluten free cookies and some more nutritious options like baby carrots and celery. As an anorexic teen, I know that I would have appreciated having healthier options at many of the functions I went to as I struggled to work through my food and body issues, it would have made the experience more inviting and comfortable for me as I privately struggled.

At the end of the day, teens are of course perfectly capable and fully responsible for the food choices that they make, but as people who care about teens I think we need to be aware of the various ways that food plays an important role in the life of teens and consider them in our programming and service choices. As G. I. Joe used to say, knowing is half the battle. The other half is what we choose to do with the information once we have it.

For more on teens, food, body image, poverty and other issues discussed above, please visit the TEEN ISSUES section of TLT.


  1. Thanks for some great suggestions! The question of if to serve food and what to serve is always one of the toughest decisions for programming.

    And, speaking as a person with food allergies, I love that you include so much information about allergy considerations. The suggestion of putting food on the promotional materials is a great idea! I’m forever calling places and asking, “Will there be popcorn there?” It would help to know in advance, but I hadn’t even thought of doing that for programs that I plan.

    Thank you!

    • Karen Jensen, TLT Karen Jensen, TLT says:

      Thank you for your comment. It’s interesting that you mention being allergic to popcorn, because Heather Booth says that is one of her go to foods for programming because it is cheap and easy.

      Good luck navigating your food allergies, I know how difficult it can be.

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