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Lunch at the Library: Program Information
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Program Information

Library summer meal sites in California

The need for free summer meals

The value of serving summer meals in libraries

Outcomes and evaluation


The California Summer Meal Coalition (CSMC) and California Library Association (CLA) are working with libraries and meal providers across California to offer summer lunch programs that are designed to provide nourishment and summer enrichment for children and teens. All library meal sites provide free summer lunches and engage families with library programs and services. Some libraries are extending the impact of their lunch programs by providing arts, literacy, and STEM programming for participating children and teens.

Library summer meal sites in California

The need for free summer meals

Summer vacation presents a different reality for many impoverished children in California. In addition to limited access to summer learning and enrichment programs, many low-income children struggle to have basic needs met, with reduced access to healthy food and safe places to congregate. The intersections between summer health and summer learning and enrichment are great, suggesting that a holistic view of the summer landscape is crucial to understanding existing challenges and opportunities to creating a summer experience in which all children are healthy, active, and engaged.

A 2012 report from the National Summer Learning Association highlights the links between food insecurity, childhood obesity, and the achievement gap:4

  • Food insecurity increases during the summer break without access to the nutrition provided by the National School Lunch Program.
  • Children may gain weight two to three times faster during the summer than during the school year.
  • Low-income youth may fall further behind in academic skills—particularly reading—during the summer break, experiencing greater “summer learning loss” than their higher-income peers and widening the achievement gap.
  • Nutrition education interventions that exclusively target the school environment may be less impactful because weight gain happens primarily outside of school.
  • Adequate nutrition promotes brain development and improves cognitive functioning, whereas inadequate nutrition is associated with physical and mental health issues, emotional and behavioral problems, learning deficiencies, lower grades, and repeating a grade.

Children who are well-nourished are likely to have cognitive advantages over children with deficits in this area, and reducing health disparities among lower and higher socioeconomic children can help close the achievement gap.5

Hunger doesn’t take a vacation

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer nutrition programs enable school districts and other eligible community-based organizations to alleviate the summer nutrition gap and offer free, healthy meals to children and youth in low-income neighborhoods. Yet in 2012, only 2.8 million of the 21 million eligible children in the U.S. participated in a USDA-subsidized summer meal program. In California, only 16% of children who received free or reduced–price lunch during the academic year participated in a summer meal program, leaving a gap unfilled for an estimated two million children and youth.1

The value of serving summer meals in libraries

Libraries are natural, yet underutilized, spaces for serving meals to children whose access to lunch disappears when school ends and summer begins.

Libraries are community spaces in the heart of the neighborhood. They welcome all and they provide access, free of charge, to resources that support the community’s lifelong needs. Furthermore, public library summer reading programs encourage and enable children and teens to set reading goals, engage them in activities that extend the reading experience, and connect youth with librarians who can help guide their reading choices and become positive role models and adult influences in their lives.

People trust their local library and feel positively toward it. Recent research from the Pew Research Center2 shows that Americans strongly value the role of public libraries in their communities, both for providing access to materials and resources and for promoting literacy and improving the overall quality of life; most Americans know where their local library is; and most Americans who have used a public library have had positive experiences there.

The Pew Research Center study also states that while most Americans know where their local library is, many are unfamiliar with all the services libraries offer. Lunch at the Library is a great opportunity to introduce families to the library's services and resources, as well as helping them feel and become more healthy.

By serving meals, introducing families to library services, and offering arts, literacy, and STEM programming during the summer, our program is feeding children during the summer, helping prevent summer learning loss, and engaging low-income families with their public library: the one free community space that sustains democracy, levels the playing field, values the individual, nourishes creativity, opens young minds, builds community, supports families, builds technology skills, and offers sanctuary—all free of charge to the user.3

Outcomes and evaluation

Families who participate in Lunch at the Library also take part in library programs, learn about library services and resources, and have a positive sense of well-being when they are at the library.

Lunch at the Library programs are designed and evaluated according to the Summer Matters Initiative's Six Signs of a Great Summer Learning Program.

The Lunch at the Library outcomes are:

  1. Participants know that they can get help and essential resources at the library
  2. Participants feel healthy



Project Co-Directors

Patrice Chamberlain
Director, California Summer Meal Coalition

Natalie Cole
Associate Executive Director, California Library Association

Project Associate

Trish Garone
Programs Associate, California Library Association

1. California Data Source: California Food Policy Advocates, 2012 School’s Out Who Ate Report
2. See <>.
3. See <>.
4. Healthy Summers for Kids: Turning Risk Into Opportunity
5. Basch, C. E. (2011), Healthier Students Are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap. Journal of School Health, 81: 593–598. doi: 10.1111/j.1746-1561.2011.00632.x.<>


Lunch at the Library is a project of the California Library Association and California Summer Meal Coalition and is funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.


Photo courtesy of Alameda County Community Food Bank, City of Oakland Human Services, and Oakland Public Library.