Lunch at the Library 

The summer lunch program at the Oakland Public Library helps fill the gap for hungry kids.

The César E. Chávez branch of the Oakland Public Library isn't quiet — at least during the summer. It teems with children: Squealing toddlers grip picture books while school-aged kids are glued to computer screens, headphones on. Mothers, aunts, and nannies gossip. It feels like a children's playground with books and computers — in short, restrained chaos.

Things calm down when it's time to eat.

At 12:30, the kids line up, just like at a school cafeteria, to receive a free boxed lunch. Within ten minutes the din settles to a pleasant buzz, punctuated by the crinkling sound of plastic wrappers.

Lunch goes fast — twenty minutes, tops — and there's a lull induced by full bellies before the kids run off to check out books, hop back on the computers, or find a corner to rifle through stacks of comics. Some kids stay all day: They do art, make puppets, or participate in GameZone — two hours of uninterrupted video-game time for teens. For them, the free lunch is crucial to helping them get through the day.

"During the summer, some kids show up at the library ... when the staff gets there to open up, and they'll hang out there for an hour until the library opens. And they stay there until their parents are done with work," said Nina Lindsay, Oakland Public Library's supervising librarian for children's services. "No adult should have to sit in a library for six hours without any structured activity, and kids certainly can't do it."

Two years ago, Lindsay was approached by the Alameda County Community Food Bank about the possibility of serving food at the library to youths under eighteen, in partnership with the City of Oakland. "The executive director said that in California, 75 percent of school kids who get free lunch during the school year don't get it during the summer," Lindsay recalled. The percentage is slightly less in Alameda County.

The food bank's summer lunch program began distributing free lunches at parks and recreation centers, churches, and other places throughout Oakland 28 years ago. Libraries were a natural fit. "We see the spike in childhood hunger each summer when school lets out and children lose their free or reduced-priced lunch and breakfast," said Allison Pratt, the food bank's director of policy and services. "This is an added burden of ten meals per week per child for a family already struggling to put a healthy meal on the table. We have found over the years that the best strategy to connect children to the free summer lunch program is to offer the program at places where children naturally gather during the summer months. For this reason, libraries are very attractive locations."

The first year, the library piloted the program at a few branches, and the following year expanded it to more. Participating branches now include the Main Library, 81st Avenue, César E. Chávez, Dimond, Eastmont, Elmhurst, Golden Gate, Martin Luther King Jr., Melrose, Temescal, and West Oakland. "It was a revolutionary idea — for libraries especially," said Lindsay. "We're not set up for food service."

Because libraries are traditionally food-free zones, the Oakland Public Library had to ease its restrictions on eating and drinking. At the César E. Chávez branch, eating is now allowed in designated areas during the hour that lunch is served. Other libraries have also loosened up their policies to allow drinks and dry snacks in certain areas.

Libraries also had to figure out other problems related to food distribution. The food bank provides refrigerators to store the lunches, and recruits and trains volunteers to pass them out. The City of Oakland's Department of Health and Human Services contracts with providers to make and distribute the lunches, which usually consist of a sandwich or wrap, a carton of milk, and a piece of fruit.

Another challenge is when parents ask for lunch, too. "We have to make an announcement once or twice a week that the meals are just for the children," said Peter Villasenor, manager of the César E. Chávez branch. "It's unfortunate, but it can jeopardize the program if adults eat the food." He refers them to the food bank's hotline, which helps connect them to other outlets.

According to Pratt, "the program has led to a significant uptick in library usage and membership. It's a win-win situation for everybody."

Last year, about 7,000 lunches were distributed through the Oakland Library, and librarians like Derrick Demay at the 81st Avenue branch are expecting even bigger crowds this summer. "Students have come to rely on it," he said. "If we didn't have the lunch program they may not come as early. Knowing they can get fed, they stay longer. They're able to read and focus and get ready for the next school year."

This year, some branches have run out of lunches, and have had to turn people away. Libraries respond by ordering more lunches for the following day.

The program has been such a success that this year other library systems have decided to follow suit. Public libraries in Fresno, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento are piloting their own programs, in conjunction with the California Library Association. One of the goals, according to Lindsay, is to figure out how to model this program in libraries throughout California.

For those that perceive the library's main purpose to be a circulator of books, services like the summer lunch program may seem to be out of character. But for librarians, the program makes sense, and is part and parcel of their jobs as public servants providing access to not just information, but other services for the common good.

"It's always been core to the mission of libraries ... to have open doors and provide as easy access as possible to whatever you need, including food," said Lindsay. "We're a bureaucracy ourselves, but we see part of our jobs as dismantling bureaucracy for people."

The Oakland Public Library's summer lunch program runs through August 9, and is available to youths under eighteen. No paperwork or library membership is necessary; check the branch schedule for details.

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