Public Libraries Step Up Help as Food Insecurity Rises
Pandemic assistance to families at risk of food insecurity has ended. As a “hunger cliff” looms, programs in public libraries can fill gaps.
Libraries have long played a part in food security, distributing lunches to underserved students and helping patrons apply for nutrition assistance programs. The need for such services increased significantly during the pandemic, and it is about to reach new levels.
For Americans in 32 states, March brings the end of increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits implemented in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency. (Emergency allotments had already been discontinued in several states, including Montana, Georgia and Indiana.) On average, households will receive at least $95 less each month, and some will see cuts as much as $250 or more.
About 1 in 10 households in the U.S. are food insecure. The rate is almost three times as high in low-income households, those most dependent on SNAP and most affected by a more than 10 percent rise in the cost of food over the past year.
Almost half of the 17,496 libraries in the U.S. have programs to distribute food to youth, and nearly a third provide food to adults. More than 2,500 are located in “food deserts,” communities with few (or no) sources of affordable fresh food.
In 2022, with funding from the Walmart Foundation, the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) formed a Libraries and Food Security initiative to develop best practices for expanding the sector’s efforts.
Justice, Not Scarcity
Libraries are among the most trusted community institutions, with an “open to all” culture based on respect for human dignity. In discussions about food security, library leaders underscored the importance of the words used to describe the work.
Food justice programs in libraries have included food pantries, seed banks, education programs addressing nutrition and cooking skills and “market bucks” to be exchanged for produce at a farmers market.
Margot O’Connell is the adult services librarian for the public library in Sitka, Alaska. The population is less than 9,000. Groceries have to be brought in by plane or barge, and the prices show it.
To build food resiliency, the library established the Sitka Seed Library. Residents who sign up to participate can take seeds from a library card catalog cabinet. Most are heirloom seeds that are suited to a wet climate without much sunlight.
“We’re going to have more and more people rely on food assistance programs who haven’t previously needed them,” she says. “Libraries have an important role to play because we are trusted organizations where people are welcome, without barriers to entry and access.”
Lauren Boeke is youth services coordinator at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library in Ohio, a system comprised of 20 libraries that serve about half a million people.
“Our teams have been working around the clock to help customers who need to apply for benefits, to reapply for benefits or to examine other options now that SNAP benefits have changed,” Boeke says.
Staff help patrons fill out documents, and the library prints up to 15 pages a day for them at no cost. Many government offices are only accepting paperwork via scan or fax, and the libraries provide free fax service.
Through a partnership with a local nonprofit, Connecting Kids to Meals, meals are provided year-round to children ages birth to 18 at 14 library locations. A tutoring program is available during meal time frames.
“Kids come in every day and get a well-balanced meal and time to do homework together,” says Boeke. “They also interact with adults — it’s a real community-building experience.” Meal bags are available on weekends for children to pick up and take home.
Dignity and Choice
The operator of a café inside the main county library building was having a hard time even before the pandemic and decided not to reopen when COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, says Jason Kucsma, the executive director of Toledo Lucas County Public Library.
This created an opportunity for a partnership between the library and SAME (So All May Eat), which has operated a successful nonprofit restaurant in Denver for 17 years.
The Denver café was created by a couple who had worked in soup kitchens and wanted to provide food aid atmosphere with less stigma, says SAME CEO Brad Reubendale.
Guests order from a menu of freshly cooked food, but there are no set prices. They “pay” in whatever way they can, whether donating money, volunteering time or giving produce.
SAME Café has been the inspiration for dozens of “pay what you can” restaurant projects, but not all have survived. Reubendale’s dream was to create cafés in other cities using the model that has kept the Denver restaurant stable and self-sufficient for nearly two decades.
Community leaders from Toledo had visited SAME’s Denver restaurant and wanted to bring one to their city. They spent three years looking for an appropriate commercial space before their search led them to Kucsma and the library.
Nutrition and Training
SAME Café Toledo opened in November 2022, managed by five staff from the nonprofit. “I’ve been amazed by how successful this place has been,” says Kucsma. “You see families who are coming to the library, business leaders, people who are experiencing homelessness, and they are all eating the same nourishing and delicious food.”
A “Cook to Work” program offers training modules that cover the basics of working in a professional kitchen. If a volunteer completes the whole program, SAME will pay for training that will give them a food manager certification, improving their prospects for employment.
College social work interns and high school students who plan to attend culinary school work in the café, as do volunteers of all sorts who appreciate its mission. “There’s strength and beauty and resilience in seeing all different types of folks coming together, just sort of bumping up against each other,” Kucsma says.
For Reubendale, this success confirms that the model could be replicated in other libraries around the country. Downtown libraries often have empty or underutilized café spaces and are situated in prime locations. Since the Toledo restaurant opened, he’s heard from libraries in several cities who are considering bringing SAME cafés to their buildings.
In recent decades, a number of unfunded mandates have been pushed to libraries, says Kucsma. In response, some have hired social workers. Some have self-funded food programs. SAME Café Toledo exemplifies an approach that can keep pace with need: enabling outside organizations to use public library spaces to engage with and serve the community.
Expanded SNAP benefits are ending because May 11 has been declared to be the final day of the COVID-19 public health emergency. But lingering disruption from the pandemic is a big reason that many fear the country is approaching a “hunger cliff.”
Libraries are uniquely positioned to help communities through this period, Kucsma believes, and to help them heal from cultural and political divisiveness. “I’m looking for ways that we can bring different types of people together to experience each other,” he says. “The café is that manifested in daily lunch service from 11 to 2:30.”