Youth Matters

Jennifer Burek PierceBy Jennifer Burek Pierce
American Libraries Columnist

Assistant professor of library and information science, University of Iowa, Iowa City

October 2008

Feeding the Whole Child

How libraries can nourish hungry stomachs and minds 

In The Beet Fields: Memories of a Sixteenth Summer, one of the challenges Gary Paulsen’s anonymous 16-year-old protagonist faces is hunger. The boy, as Paulsen calls him throughout this brief and intense work, survives by completing all sorts of grueling labor, often with only the most meager of meals to sustain him.

Paulsen’s protagonist has cognates in the real world, and not only because of the novel’s autobiographical nature. According to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) serves more than 29 million children each day.

Jennifer Teitelbaum, a librarian at the Spring Valley branch of the San Diego County (Calif.) Library, knew that area youth patrons arriving to participate in programs or to check out materials were among the faces behind those numbers. Her history with the library system and partnerships with area agencies enabled her to address a concern that experts on child nutrition and food insecurity have broached in recent years: how to continue feeding lunch to young people once summer comes when they get their midday meals at school from the NSLP the rest of the year.

When Teitelbaum worked with José Ocadiz at SDCL’s Lincoln Acres branch, the California Nutrition Council hosted free lunches there during the summer, and the two librarians served after-school snacks to youth patrons on weekdays. After moving to the Spring Valley branch, Teitelbaum was interested in providing the same services there.

“The San Diego County Library staff gave me full support as I went forward,” she said. During the school year, the library and volunteers provided after-school snacks to the first 125 students under the age of 17. Throughout the summer, the library served at least 30 lunches to young people in its community room. “Many of the children do come daily, but the lunch program has seen many new faces,” she said. Teitelbaum noted that she scheduled programs to follow meals as well as snacks. It is the sort of effort that creates its own publicity.

Word of mouth

“Word is spreading,” she told me partway through the summer. One of the 33 branches of SDCL, Spring Valley has seen “approximately double the attendance over the next-highest branch in programs,” she explained. By summer’s end, there were indications that many of the
library’s core statistics, like circulation, were rising too.

Teitelbaum believes that both the food and the library’s resources matter to area residents. “This program has been a win-win in a community that can appreciate this and all the library services,” she said.

The library’s location and community dynamics play a part in attracting young users. “Spring Valley Library has always had plenty of children at the branch since moving to the new location a few years ago,” Teitelbaum explained, noting that the library is situated between an elementary school, middle school, teen center, and gymnasium. “Many of the youth come straight from school and stay for hours, so the little bit of nutritious snack they receive goes a long way,” she added.

When I was last in touch with Teitelbaum in late August, the start of school was near—a time when
it’s only human for youth services librarians to have wrapped up their summer programs with a collective sigh of relief. Already, though, she was considering the days ahead and next summer, too. “I will definitely be doing this as long as the state budget allows, and if we had more volunteers I would increase the daily nutrition giveaways,” she said. Providing food to area youngsters in need has energized Teitelbaum. “For myself, I find I’m helping the community, and the library benefits by giving back to the patrons.”