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?

September is Hunger Action Month

September is Hunger Action Month.  Since 2008, the number of families facing Food Insecurity has risen dramatically.  Last night on NPR they stated that 54 million families and 17 million children in the United States don’t know where their next meal may be coming from.  And yesterday morning in church they announced that the North Texas Food Bank was closing for a month because they ran out of food.  They just couldn’t keep up with the decreasing amounts of donations and the increasing amounts of families asking for help.  You can find out more about Hunger Action Month at Feeding America.  For more information you can also visit No Kid Hungry.

Also, be sure to read our ongoing series on poverty in the lives of teens.

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?

Series Focus: Youth and Poverty

Poverty is one of the growing issues our tweens and teens face today.  Since 2008, many people who have never had to worry about feeding their children now do.  We are doing a series that focuses on the issue of growing poverty, how it is affecting the lives of our patrons, and what it really means to be food insecure, to now have access to the  things we take for granted like access to the technology we need to succeed and be successful in school, how libraries in various communities can have such different clienteles which changes their mission.

Graphic from World Vision.org, visit for more information

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 bed hungry

Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries

Sunday Reflections: Poverty doesn’t always look the way you think it does

Sunday Reflections: All I Want for Christmas is the Chance to Go to College

Feeding Teens at the Library: Summer and Afterschool Meals
The Economy as Villain in The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand

Book Review: PANIC by Lauren Oliver

Book Review: HUNGRY by H. A. Swain

Sunday Reflections: Going to Bed Hungry

Violence. Bullying. School testing. We talk a lot about the issues affecting the lives of teens, but we don’t talk enough about one of the biggest: poverty and food insecurity.  1 out of 5 children don’t know when – or if – they are going to get to eat today.

“It was during such a moment that my stomach, empty for nearly forty-eight hours, constricted and squired out a noise of at least six seconds in duration . . . In a twisted bit of mercy, I could not fully concentrate on my own mortification, as I was gripped by hunger pains the likes of which I’d never felt. I had to eat . . .” Rotters, Daniel Kraus

“I’m not on drugs,’ I blurted, ‘I’m just hungry.’
‘Hungry’, mused Diamond. . . .
‘Joey, say it was up to you. How would you like us to help you?’
‘I just want to eat’ was all I said . . .” Rotters, Daniel Kraus

In Rotters, author Daniel Kraus writes a compelling potrayal of one teen boys descent into an underground world that many of us never realized existed: graverobbing.  It is a dark, twisted tale where Kraus sets up a sympathetic character, smashes him to bits in the most darkest of ways, and then you suddenly find yourself reading the darkest, most unflinching tale of a character that you once rooted for but now often loathe.  It is bold and daring storytelling at its best.  But for me, one of the most stunning features of Rotters is the all too tangible and aching description of food insecurity that Kraus portrays in the character of Joey Crouch.  After Joey’s mom dies, he is sent to live with a father he never really knew and is thrust into a life of abject poverty.  He goes days without eating, living in a shack that can barely be considered a home.  It is this very food insecurity that makes Joey tiptoe onto this dark path.  Although it has been over 3 years since I first read Rotters, I have never stopped thinking about this book.  And recently, I began listening to it on Audio and was amazed at how much more visceral the audio presentation made those very uncomfortable scenes, those scenes that far too many of our world’s children are living every day.  When narrator Kirby Heyborne says “I just want to eat”, your heart just shatters into a million pieces because you can hear the hunger in his voice.  There is a reason this audio adaptation won the 2012 Odyssey Award.

Just a few days into his tortured life at a new school, already the subject of bullying and scorn for the father he barely knows, Joey is tortured by hunger.  He is caught by a teacher stealing a purse out of a locker just to get some money to eat.  And when the school gets involved, they do everything exactly wrong; except they do get Joey signed up for free lunch.  But as too many children know all too well, lunch is never enough.

As childhood poverty rates rise, events close to home have reminded me how important this issue is to our children and teens; to their well being today and their potential for success in the future.  And listening once again to Rotters was the impetus to get me to write this post.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I tweet often about childhood poverty.  Currently, 1 in 5 children go to bed hungry.  They have what is known as “food insecurity”; they do not know when and where their next meal may come from.  They go to school with hungry, raging bellies and find it hard to concentrate and learn because hunger is one of the primary needs we all need to satisfy in order to just get through the day. It is hard to listen to a teacher at the front of a room when your belly is screaming at you from within.

My Tween daughter is friends with a girl living with food insecurity.  Her parents were forced by recent events to move to a new state, much like we were, to find employment, though they have been less successful than we have been.  They have used local food pantries to supplement their low, unsteady income (the dad can only find intermittent contract work, which runs out).  People from church have bought them groceries.  They have worked temporary jobs with incredibly late hours, leaving their kids home alone or with neighbors while they try and earn just enough money to buy groceries for another two weeks.  And yes, my family has bought them groceries, because even as we sometimes try to figure out how to make the end of our paycheck last until the next payday (I too have only been able to find a part-time job), I have been very aware that I would want someone to feed my children if I could not.

I have written before about the community that we just moved out of in Ohio.  How at one point and time (in 2010) it had the highest poverty rate in all of Ohio.  This school year, a teacher wrote a grant and every student gets free breakfast and lunch at school because the poverty and hunger are so high.  Somewhere around 70% or more qualified for free or reduced lunch. During the summers, the community gets together and provides lunches at various locations because they know that for many of those children, it will be the only food they eat that day.

As I was Googling around for more concrete facts to share with you for this post, I stumbled across the Twitter account of Tom Hiddleston, Loki from the Avengers movie (which is on repeat at my house).  Mr. Hiddleston recently participated in a campaign known as Below the Line where people were challenged to live on just $1.50 a day for their food and drink resources, the average of what people living in poverty spend.  Mr. Hiddleston kept a video diary where he showed himself eating things like a baked potato and giving up coffee.  $1.50 a day does not buy you much, it does not fill your belly and provide you with the healthy fuel you need to live a quality life, it simply dulls the hunger pains. 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S55dTdhpQ_A]

There are other major movements out there to help raise awareness about hunger not only in America, but in our world.  Top Chef star Tom Coliccichio recently put together a documentary called A Place at the Table. The PBS series Frontline recently did a series on Poor Kids where they talked to children about growing up in poverty – and hungry.  The Frontline special is full of important information and I highly recommend it.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgxxT4xpVNI]

So here are some things you need to know:
“Nearly 16 million children in the United States – 22% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $23,021 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45% of children live in low-income families.

Most of these children have parents who work, but low wages and unstable employment leave their families struggling to make ends meet. Poverty can impede children’s ability to learn and contribute to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Poverty also can contribute to poor health and mental health. Risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/or experience deep and persistent poverty.

Research is clear that poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well-being. But effective public policies – to make work pay for low-income parents and to provide high-quality early care and learning experiences for their children – can make a difference. Investments in the most vulnerable children are also critical.” – National Center for Children in Poverty

If you work with teens, you need to be aware that many of them who come into your school and public libraries are hungry.  Not hungry for knowledge, but just plain ole hungry. Gut wrenching, acid boiling, can’t concentrate on anything, hungry.  If you have the means, add snacks to your programming.  Healthy snacks so that these children are getting some of the nutrients they need not only to keep their body functioning, but to keep it functioning well and thriving.

Find ways to get teens involved in the issue of local and world hunger.  Use your social media platforms to share statistics, PSAs and more.  Have events like a Food for Fines to get teens involved in helping at the local level.  Keep in mind that community involvement is an important Developmental Asset when selling these types of programs to your administrators. 

Libraries are all about educating the people and helping them reach their personal best, and we can do that by making sure that our administrators, our communities and our teens know what a pressing issue poverty and hunger is.  And it’s not just about the homeless people you see begging on the street, it is also about the people in the house next door that you don’t realize are eating plain spaghetti noodles for the 3rd night in a row and are coming to our libraries to look for work because they can’t afford computers or Internet access.  Let teens know that one of the biggest issues facing those in poverty is access to clean drinking water.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9iZuByA61Y]
Teens need to know that THEY can make a difference

Teens can make a difference in the lives of others, they just need to know there is a need.  And we can make a difference in the lives of our communities.  Information is power, so help us get the information out there.

“The dirt became just dirt. It quit clinging to roots, ceased soaking up manure, stopped drinking rain, and spat seeds. . . Now the entire farm was up for sale, and soon they would be transplanted to some desultory house in Monroeville or Cotober or Bloughton. A house – that was if they got lucky with an offer. More likely was an apartment. Ry could barely conceive of such a thing. He glances at his sister, maybe fifteen feet away, and tried to imagine her growing into a long-legged young lady within such cramped confines.  He returned his face to the dirt. His heart hurt; he could actually feel it hurt. What was the use of resisting?” – Scowler, Daniel Kraus (which also has some stunning depictions of poverty).

Take 5: MG and Teen fiction that portray poverty and food insecurity
Rotters by Daniel Kraus
Almost Home by Joan Bauer
Hold Fast by Blue Balliett
Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt
Dare You To by Kate McGarry

And recommended by the Tweeps on Twitter:
Miles from Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams
Keep Holding On by Susan Colesanti
Trafificked by Kim Purcell
Madapple by Christina Meldrum
Crazy by Han Nolan
Dare You To by Kate McGarry

Action Against Hunger
Unicef: Below the Line
The Water Project 
Charity: Water