Free Summer Meals and Diverse Storytimes Are a Winning Combination at This Library

Free meals for all children and culturally relevant programming led to higher community engagement and joyous experiences.

At Uniondale Public Library, a pre-lunch performance on a Chinese harp; fun with crafts; and lunchtime in the library meeting room.  

During winter, I start thinking ahead to summer. Those of us who work in public libraries, specifically youth services, know that summer is our busiest time of the year. School is out, and we have reading clubs to run and extra programming to offer. We’re also aware that some of our young patrons spend the entire day at the library while their parents work, and that, over the course of the day, they may fill themselves up on candy—or nothing at all.

For this reason, many U.S. libraries, including my employer, Uniondale (NY) Public Library (UPL), have partnered with food banks to provide healthy summer meals in a safe, supervised setting for young people up to age 18. For the past three years, UPL has been a free meal site for the Island Harvest food bank over vacation. Island Harvest the biggest hunger relief organization on Long Island and depends on volunteers, in-kind services, and donated food. The organization partners with other Long Island libraries that act as meal sites when school’s out, enabling each to serve as an institutional jack-of-all-trades for its community.

Meal sites can serve up to two healthy meals per day and a snack. Island Harvest requires mandatory training for participants, adherence to health and sanitary standards, and, most importantly, that meals be served in a communal eating setting in the library to anyone 18 years and younger, without bias regarding socio-economic status. In short, our library has to be clean—and all are welcome, including daycare operations, summer camps, and families bringing children for a meal. It isn’t up to us to decide who is worthy and who is not. We simply serve the meals to kids who want to eat.

This summer was the first time the initiative was under my teen services department’s jurisdiction. My goal was to increase the number of community members taking advantage of the meals. We wanted our meeting room to be filled with children enjoying food while parents or caregivers chatted. Summer for our small department is insanely busy with regular teen programs, teen volunteers, and all things summer reading club-related, but we all knew that this was an important initiative—and we stepped up. Here are some strategies we used.

We expanded meals and distributed bilingual flyers.

The first thing we did was increase how often we offered meals, going from one day a week to three days per week over six weeks. We served lunch on Mondays and Wednesdays and breakfast on Friday mornings.

Our bilingual librarian, Deborah Kiniron, and library clerk, Regine Jose, translated flyers into Spanish and Haitian Kreyòl. We tacked them to community boards at laundromats and supermarkets and took them to local businesses. The owner of a beauty supply business happily put up the English and Haitian Kreyòl flyers in her front window. A respected Haitian-American community resident known as Miss Claudy, she told me that she supported anything for the kids. Lots of people asked her about the flyers, and she told them to make sure that they support the library. Nassau County legislator Kevan Abrahams also promoted our program on his social media page, which was a first. The community took notice.

Two neighboring libraries, Roosevelt and Baldwin Public Libraries, have hugely successful Island Harvest programs, serving meals five days a week, so I asked librarians there for tips. They suggested creating lead-in programs on lunch days and attaching an activity to the breakfast program. I created two events: Storytime Specials: Multicultural Storytime on Mondays, and Storytime in Black on Wednesdays. Both started at 11:30 a.m., and lunch was at noon.

Our storytimes celebrated our diversity and cultures.

Uniondale is a diverse community, and the majority of our patrons are African American, West Indian, and Hispanic. Both storytime specials were a great fit. My wonderful coworkers, who hail from around the globe, volunteered to showcase their own cultures during Multicultural Storytimes. These events were filled with songs, stories, artifacts, games, and dancing. Library staff, and a spouse, took us to the places of their birth: India, Ecuador, and Ireland. Two other colleagues, neither youth services librarians, stepped out of the comfort zones and took the children to China and Germany. A harpist play the Guzheng, or Chinese harp, for the audience. Another community member who practically grew up in the library presented a storytime that celebrated his family’s country of El Salvador.

Storytime in Black was inspired by Multomah County librarian Kirby McCurtis, who started “Black Storytime” at her Oregon library. Myself and another African American librarian, Salamah Mullen, along with two African American librarian trainees planned each session. We celebrated black culture throughout the diaspora.

Each session began with the West African welcome song “Funga Alafia.” Then, for 30 minutes, the children were reminded that they are smart, beautiful, and unique, and that they should love themselves. Community members volunteered as guest readers, including Dorothy L. Goosby, longtime Long Island senior councilwoman and civil rights pioneer. Other guest readers took us to Haiti, Trinidad, and the continent of Africa.

These events were a joyous hit, and many children who attended stayed for lunch. On our busiest day, we had close to 100 people in our meeting room. During lunch, we set aside part of the room as a play area where they could go after eating. Teen librarian Amanda Borgia created activity booklets for preK–fifth grade, while Cooper designed scavenger hunts for older kids and teens. Children who completed the booklets and the hunts got prizes. Teen volunteers, the Junior Friends of UPL, supervised craft activities. Library staff member Alan Romero curated an age-appropriate playlist.

Our Friday breakfast program was more laid back: We served food and played family movies and provided coloring sheets and healthy eating activity sheets. Kayla, a ninth grader, wrote a note to the library on the last day of our meal program: “Your health is your wealth…feeding your body healthy foods makes you turn into a super hero.”

My team’s hard work was all worth it. By participating in free meal programs, we help equalize the nutritional divide that exists in some communities by providing food and educating people about healthy eating. The culturally relevant programming was a beautiful experience. We celebrated our black and Hispanic children by reminding them that their roots are rich—and we exposed them to other cultures, too. We can’t wait to do it again next summer.

Syntychia Kendrick-Samuel is a 2016 LJ Mover & Shaker.

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