Bright Spots showcase the work that Grade-Level Reading communities are doing to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016.  Read on or download the PDF.

Today’s feature – highlighting California libraries that offer summer meals and literacy activities – is the fourth in a periodic series of “summer” Bright Spots, in advance of Summer Learning Day 2014 on June 20, sponsored by the National Summer Learning Association. Get ready for the celebration by taking the pledge, getting resources from NSLA, and registering for the next monthly Network Communities Support Center webinar onJune 5th at 3 pm ET. A number of communities will share brief (3-minute) overviews of their Summer Learning Day plans.

In the summer, many children lose easy access to free school meals and lose some of what they learned during the school year. Enter California’s library summer meal programs, which have proved a win-win by combating summer hunger and summer learning loss. Offering children free nutritious meals and literacy activities at public libraries during the summer, the meal programs will be offered in 2014 in more California libraries.

“It was really successful. We served around 1,800 meals – that’s feeding a lot of children,” says Kari Johnson of the Fresno County Public Library, which belongs to Fresno’s Grade-Level Reading coalition. And most joined the library’s summer reading program. “We saw it as a need,” says Johnson, noting that over 90 percent of Fresno County children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. “We also wanted to provide key enrichment activities that prevent summer learning loss and encourage reading.”

Of the 2.5 million California children who participated daily in the national school lunch program, which closes in the summer, only about 17 percent participated in comparable summer meal programs in 2012, according to California Food Policy Advocates.

Inspired by an Oakland program started in 2011, Lunch at the Library – a coordinated outcomes-based project to keep kids healthy and engaged while school is out – was launched in four library systems in 2013 by the California Library Association (CLA) and the California Summer Meal Coalition, with support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Five additional library systems offered similar programs.

In six library systems in 2013 – Fresno County, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego County, San Francisco and Oakland – 24,458 meals and 432 snacks were served. Activities included writing workshops, storytelling and nutrition classes. Librarians reported more sign-ups for summer reading programs and more library cards issued, plus children with improved behavior and attentiveness.

“The program brings new families to the library and engages them with the summer reading programs, which create communities of readers and library users,” says Natalie Cole, CLA associate executive director.

In 2014, summer meal programs will be available in at least 50 libraries in 18 California library systems. And Lunch at the Library will offer technical support and evaluation to all known programs.

In Fresno County – which served a cold lunch every weekday from mid-June to early August at the downtown library – Lunch at the Library will spread to three more libraries and enrichment activities will broaden to include the sciences.

Lunch at the Library’s particulars vary by community. The meal sponsor, for example, in Fresno County is the Economic Opportunities Commission (EOC), a community action agency. In Sacramento, it was a school district and in Los Angeles, a food bank.

In Fresno County, lunch was served by library staff, aided by two interns from the Boys & Girls Club and one intern from Fresno State University, plus volunteers, many of them teens. Each child received up to five free books, thanks to grants from Fresno State and Dollar General Literacy Foundation.

“A lot of people can’t afford to buy a book,” says Johnson. “We were able to get a lot of books in children’s hands.”

Unaccustomed to meal service, library staff were schooled by EOC in the many health regulations and logistics involved. “One of the most important things is having staff engaged and informed,” advises Johnson.

Staff did find it uncomfortable to be prohibited from serving people over age 18. “It’s very awkward,” says Johnson. “If the children are hungry, the parents are probably hungry.” Adults were referred to other meal sites but Lunch at the Library is working to better address this.

“We anticipated a lot more issues and we didn’t have many,” says Johnson. “It really helped give children the physical foundation – healthy mind, healthy body – to keep them reading during the summer. It fueled their brain power.”

For more information, contact Kari Johnson at 559-600-6251 or

Photos: © 2013 Fresno County Public Library; Publication Date: Spring 2014


You can nominate a Bright Spot in your community by emailing Betsy Rubiner at

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