Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

In Our Mailbox: Feeding Teens at the Library and Joining the Fight Against Hunger

Read More About Hunger Action Month at TLT and Feeding America

Readers of this blog know that we have a heart for hunger and poverty in the lives of our teens.  In fact, as I write this post, yet another job situation in my personal life means that without drastic changes, we will be unable to feed our children at the end of November.  And like so many families out there, it can be a struggle to find a way to take care of the basic necessities of life.  And my life is no different than the patrons that we serve every day, which is one of the reasons why I am such a strong advocate for libraries, and for teens, and for fighting hunger and poverty.  September is Hunger Action Month, a month that asks us to go orange and forces us to confront what is happening in our world and to try to make a difference.  It is probably my very vocalness on this topic that prompted someone to reach out to me via email me asking how she could approach her library administration and propose creating an after school program to help feed the teens in her community.  So here are some thoughts I have on the topic.

Libraries are community centers that support the educational needs of the community.  Education can not happen when our teens are too hungry to think of anything else but the hunger in their bellies.  And we can look at the health and obesity rates in our nation and see that we need more education when it comes to things like diet, nutrition, food choices and more.  Food can be a great springboard for library programming.
Step 1: Research What is Happening in Your Community
First, develop a really good community profile to help state your case.  Local statistics can help you identify the poverty rates in your community, the average annual income, unemployment rates and more.  The school districts you serve can let you know what percentage of their students qualify for free and reduced lunch, identifying kids who probably also have less access to after school snacks and meals.  This statistical profile will help you identify the need and be able to make a strong defense for your initiative to your admin and community.

Once you have established a need, take a look around and see how other community organizations may be trying to address this need.  Does your local public school have a summer lunch program?  A lot of them do now days, they are unfortunately necessary, and they often write grants.  A quick look around reveals that there are a few grant opportunities out there to help improve the hunger problems in our local communities.

If the local schools already have a food supplement program, you can investigate partnering with them.  My previous library in Marion, Ohio partnered with the local schools to do some storytimes and programming at various parks throughout the city during the summer where meals were provided.  The library didn’t always provide the food, but provided support for the program and education.  In fact, this summer the schools wrote an additional grant and provided bags of fruits and vegetables for the kids to take home for the rest of the week.  The meal was only 1 day a week, but this allowed families to have access to additional food during the rest of the week.

Federal Poverty Guidelines
Federal Poverty Threshholds

Step 2: Identifying Why Hunger is an Issue

It’s not enough to let others know that hunger is a problem in your community, they often need help understanding why it is an issue, and why libraries should get involved.  Hunger has tremendous physical implications; it can be painful, distracting, and effects development.  Hungry kids often do more poorly than their well nourished counterparts in school, because of the hunger itself but because hungry kids also have other issues happening in their lives.  They may have parents working two or more part-time jobs to make ends meet so they are often home alone or taking care of younger siblings.  If they don’t have the money for food then they often don’t have the money for other basic life necessities, like school supplies and clothing, let alone things like consistent access to good technology.  If we can help our patrons relieve some of their worries and concerns regarding this basic need, we free them up to use our resources more effectively. Communities as a whole benefit when we work together to meet the nutritional needs of our youngest and most at risk populations.

Here are some good resources to help us understand the scope of the hunger problem and its affects:
No Kid Hungry
Feeding America

Step 3:  Putting Together a Plan

With your background information in place, you now are reading to format a plan.


Once we understand the issue, we need to have an action plan.  Like all good action plans, we need to start with specific goals.  Once you have defined your goals, we can then look at how we want to achieve them.

If your goal is to provide snacks or meals to teens in your community, then we need to consider how many meals, how often, and how many teens.  Then we figure out how we are going to fund the program and obtain and distribute the food.


For example, you could also contact a local organization or grocery store to request either funding or food donations.  Perhaps a local church or food pantry could help supply food.  Many communities have local grant opportunities.  If you have a local Friends of the Library Group, they may be a great source for funding.  And we have already discovered that there are bigger grant opportunities out there as well.  Even if you don’t get funding but choose to use library, or Friends, funding, you can investigate wholesale food discounts with larger supply places like GFS.

It looks like there are some good resources out there:
“The Summer Food Service Program (Summer Meals) is a federal child nutrition program that provides funding for meals and snacks served to children age 18 and younger during the summer. The program was designed to replace the school breakfast and lunch programs during the summer, so low-income children would have access to the same nutritious meals they rely on during the school year. (citation: Food Research and Action Center)” Summer Food Service Program

Food Distribution and Programming 

Will you distribute the food freely?  Will it be part of a after school/summer program?  Will there be additional programming involved, like a homework help center for example?

Pair your proposal and program with these titles that can help others understand what poverty is like

You could even put together a series of programs that have an Iron Chef theme to them, include some basic nutrition education, and have the food distribution be more immediately tied into your actual library programming.

I also know that my daughter’s preschool wrote a grant (check here http://gardenabcs.com/Grants.html) that allowed them to plant a garden and coordinate it with education, which I can see a library doing if they have the space.  Many schools are already creating gardens and I can see libraries doing this as well. (See also School Garden Grants)

Note: If you apply for a grant, you’ll have to make sure and follow the terms of the grant.  You may also want to check in with your health department to investigate any rules or conditions you may have to follow.
Looking at What Other Libraries are Doing

It’s always easier when you don’t have to start from scratch.  There are libraries already doing these types of programs and they help bolster our cause and provide good examples for us to follow.  Here are just a few libraries already joining the cause to help fight hunger:

Detroit Public Library
This is an article in School Library Journal that highlights Detroits plan.
Cincinatti Public Library
This article has links to a few other good resources
Oakland Public Library 
Do a Google search for Summer Meals at the Library and California for some really good resources outlining the project, including a powerpoint.

Brooklyn Public Library
Brooklyn uses volunteers to help with their program and they have a good outline of volunteer responsibilities.

Librarians are good at sharing, I am sure if we contact them they would be happy to talk to us about what they are doing, how it is going, and how to get started.  And now is actually the perfect time to start planning for summer 2014.  

Some Programming Tie In Ideas:

Have a food related book discussion group.  For example, you can read Pie by Sarah Weeks, share pie recipes, eat a meal and then have pie.

Cooking competitions 

Create an “In the Kitchen” program where you share recipes, discuss nutrition, etc.

Have tutors available, or games, or watch movies 

More on Poverty and Hunger at TLT:
Can We All Just Stop Saying the Internet Is Free Now Please? 
Rich Teen, Poor Teen: Books that depict teens living in poverty 
Working with youth who live in poverty 
Sunday Reflections: This is what losing everything looks like
Sunday Reflections: Going to be hungry
Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries 
Sunday Reflections: Are Schools Discriminating Against the Socioeconomically Disadvantaged?


  1. Melissa Robinson says

    The Peabody Institute Library in Peabody has hosted a Summer Food Service Program for the past 4 summers. We offer lunch 4 days a week for eight weeks in the summer to anyone ages 18 and under. We serve between 1,000 and 1,500 lunches a year. The lunches are prepared and delivered to the library by our local food pantry. Our workforce investment board provides us with grant money to hire high school students to hand out the lunches and we've also found grant money to offer programs in conjunction with the lunches. There is a chapter in the book Public Libraries and Resilient Cities about the process we went through to get the project started. It's a lot of work, but a much appreciated service to the community.

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