Contra Costa Library Offers Free Lunch at Nine Branches and a “Safe and Welcoming Space”

Midday meals and a range of activites will draw families to nine of the Contra Costa County (CA) Library’s branches this summer.

A young patron enjoys summer lunch at a Contra Costa County (CA) Library branch.
Photo courtesy of Contra Costa County Library
 Midday meals, learning activities, and programming will draw families to nine of the Contra Costa County (CA) Library’s (CCCL) branches this summer.

Since 2013, the California Library Association (CLA) has been helping libraries across the state offer lunch to youth 18 and under through the summer lunch program provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). During those six years, CLA has offered funding, trainings, and other capacity-building support so libraries can provide not just meals, but also a “safe and welcoming space, learning and enrichment opportunities, and an introduction to the library’s diverse services and resources," according to the website for the partnering organization Lunch at the Library. This summer will mark Contra Costa County Library’s fifth year hosting lunch at the library, now available at nine of the system’s 26 locations. Here are suggestions for other libraries wanting to participate.

Getting started
The USDA works with public school districts across the country to establish summer lunch programs, essentially utilizing school resources like staff and facility storage to make summer lunches work. Summer lunch programs in California have a variety of locations including schools, parks, and libraries. 

Since the school district receives food from the USDA and sets the locations for meal distribution, the first thing that interested libraries should do is to contact their local school district, according to CCCL youth services specialist Amy Mockoski. “You have to reach out and partner with [the district] first to make sure they are interested in having the library as a site,” Mockoski says.

School districts don’t all operate their summer lunch programs in the same way. One district may provide lunch throughout that school’s summer break, while another may only offer the program for part of the summer. Districts also have their own guidelines relating to food storage and whether lunches can be delivered to the library site or must be picked up. “The coordination of these details can be a little tricky,” Mockoski says. “School districts are frequently as short-staffed as our libraries can be, but we’ve never run into any resistance [to starting up a library site].”

A library may need to secure additional financing to ensure a smooth-running lunch program. Mockoski notes that CLA grant funds have gone to purchase everything from new refrigerators for storing lunches to additional garbage bags needed to clean up after the event.

Adding value
With 5,861 meals served in 2018, CCCL is meeting the nutritional, educational, and social needs of its communities. “We bring in new families who come for lunch, and we educate current library users about the lunch program,” says Mockoski. “We are stigma-free and offer families a comfortable place when sometimes a school lunch site may be in an unfamiliar location or not be positioned to serve the whole family.” While adults are not eligible to receive USDA school lunches, CCCL has partnered with local food banks to bring in produce or other items that can be taken home by adult parents and caregivers.

Each CCCL site chooses its own day to offer lunch based on open hours and community needs. Families can expect to find some kind of activity, project, or additional experience in addition to the day’s meal. Kits for STEM/STEAM activities, craft projects, and coding activities are some patron favorites. Community performers may take the stage one day; on another, participants are invited to stay for a movie matinee or spend time reading with a dog.

“Lunch can [draw] a large crowd with all ages present,” notes Mockoski, so CCCL volunteers are crucial to keeping things running smoothly. “We always have a staff member available to manage the program and handle logistics or difficulties.” Volunteers tend to assist with the added-on programming. Mockoski advises having a lot of choice and variety in activities so a site can switch things up throughout the summer. CLA funding supports these add-ons to the library’s regular programming slate.

Getting the word out
Lunch at the Library is a perfect opportunity to promote a library’s summer initiatives, and while CCCL hasn’t seen a significant impact on the number of finishers they see for their summer reading program, Mockoski says that the program has raised more community awareness of what the library offers throughout the year. As far as marketing Lunch at the Library, CCL advertises the program during its storytimes and also includes information while promoting the summer reading program. Mockoski also notes that local press and media outlets often cover the program, as it is “new, interesting, and impactful.”

April Witteveen is the community librarian at the Deschutes (OR) Public Library.

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