What might look like a new role for libraries builds on their long tradition of serving as innovation spaces, community centers and sanctuaries for people who are homeless or mentally ill.
I’ve been researching how public libraries address food insecurity – what happens when households can’t acquire adequate food because they can’t afford it or can’t access it for other reasons. Across the board, these efforts emerge from community partnerships with organizations that include school districts and food banks.
As Kristin Warzocha, president of the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, explained in 2016, “We have the food, and they have the patrons who need it.”
Lunch at the Library
The earliest example of this kind I’ve found dates back 35 years. In 1986, the Nelsonville branch of the Athens County Public Library in southeastern Ohio began serving federally funded lunches in the summertime to children to ensure that they don’t go hungry.
That county has one of Ohio’s highest food-insecurity rates, which helps explain why librarians there sought to provide food access in tandem with summer learning activities.
This practice has largely remained below the radar. The official magazine of the American Library Association didn’t mention this trend until 2008. Since then, though, growing state and national recognition and support has begun to emerge.
The COVID-19 Pandemic
When the coronavirus pandemic got underway, public libraries and their staff continued to fight food insecurity, even when their doors were closed.
Still others established emergency food pantries at libraries.
In partnership with the Rotary Club of Gwinnett, we're hosting Farmers to Families Food Boxes each Friday in October. See image for times and locations. Supplies are very limited and will be first come, first served. Boxes include fresh vegetables, dairy, and protein. pic.twitter.com/FC5eDcBNS5— Gwinnett County Public Library (@gwinnettlibrary) October 20, 2020
In St. Louis, the county public library system took part in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families program. Libraries everywhere, from Kentucky and Vermont to California and Georgia, participated in the emergency national food distribution program too.
Many libraries have started to host small food pantries located outdoors, in little boxes with doors. These sharing boxes are modeled on the “little free library” movement. These micro-libraries are usually simple cabinets fastened to posts and stocked with books anyone passing by can take for free. The little free pantry movement, which began in 2016 and seems to have expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic, instead seeks to dispatch food to those in need.
Seen in my Chicago neighborhood.— Ashley Hamer (@smashleyhamer) March 18, 2020
Sign says "To help our neighbors affected by the COVID-19 crisis, this Little Free Library is converted to a Little Free Pantry. Take what you need and if you can, please donate what you can spare!" pic.twitter.com/HtrUHNv9BG
In 2021, by the middle of May, at least 491 libraries in 28 states had made plans to serve meals to schoolchildren during their summer vacations. This number is only preliminary and will rise once more states report their data to the USDA.