Calaveras County Librarian Nancy Giddens has been on a mission to establish a summer lunch program for kids in the county, and that could come to fruition in 2020.
Since the 2013-2014 school year, the percentage of Calaveras County children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals has hovered between 50% and 60%, according to California Department of Education data.
On a broader scale, 2019 California Food Policy Advocates data indicates that 21,000 individuals in low-income households are affected by food insecurity across Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, Inyo, Mariposa, Mono and Tuolumne counties.
Food insecurity heightens in the summer, as low-income parents struggle with higher food costs in the absence of school lunches, according to Giddens. Giddens has partnered with nonprofits to ease that burden by offering a summer lunch program called Lunch at the Library.
Administered through the California State Library, the federally funded program provides free summer meals for children living in the attendance areas of elementary, middle or high schools where at least 50% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch Program.
Formed in 2013 through a partnership between the California Library Association (CLA) and the Summer Meals Coalition, Lunch at the Library brought 285,000 meals to 219 libraries across the state in 2019. The program is a collaborative effort between libraries, school districts and other local community-based organizations that offers a range of benefits, according to CLA Programs Manager Patricia Garone. For one, it can introduce families to community resources even beyond those the library offers, Garone said.
The program “brings new families to the library and gives library staff the opportunity to connect not only children and teens, but adult family members and/or caregivers, with the essential resources and services of the library,” Garone said. “It also provides a great opportunity to engage community leaders and highlights the library’s role as a trusted community hub … The program promotes healthy and engaged kids and healthy communities, and connects the dots between issues that local governments are trying to address.”
Garone added that 13% of families at Lunch at the Library programs reported that they don’t get lunch anywhere else but the library during the summer.
The meals here in Calaveras would be an extension of the county library’s regular summer reading program, which includes themed hands-on projects like rocket launching and gardening, in addition to reading activities, Giddens said.
“If you’re out for six weeks, you lose six weeks of (learning), unless there’s some effort made to correct that. So we have a theme, rewards for reading, reading logs,” Giddens said in a Dec. 18 interview. “What libraries realize is when kids come, not all of them are coming in the best shape. Some of them, it’s obvious that they’re hungry.”
Meals would be offered for children up to the age of 18, including those that aren’t school lunch recipients.
Giddens said she hopes the meal program will draw a high turnout of kids that library staff will be able to interact with regularly.
Calaveras Unified School District (CUSD) is a prospective food provider, although the district has been unable to take the project on over the past few years due to staffing and personnel issues.
“We are seriously hoping to be able to support this effort next year,” said CUSD Superintendent Mark Campbell in a Dec. 20 email.
If CUSD is unavailable, alternative food providers could include the Amador County Unified School District or a local restaurant, Giddens said.
The county library has already received $3,000 in state funds to cover any expenses in getting the program up and running, and another $5,000 will be allocated once it starts, Giddens said.
Given limited library staffing, Giddens said the funding may be used to hire a manager to oversee the program.
“This is a partnership between the county, the school districts and the state library. I love that,” Giddens said. “I love it when we all do a part of it, and it gets done. It just shows that cooperation and good relationships with each other bring a lot of fruit.”
Giddens, who was originally planning to offer the program at the central library in San Andreas, said an enthusiastic Calaveras County Board of Supervisors now wants a slice of that fruit in each of the supervisorial districts.
While Giddens is optimistic, she’s uncertain of whether that could be a reality for 2020, since it could require coordination with the Vallecito Union and Mark Twain Union Elementary school districts as well.
“My problem at this point is that the board response was so great,” Giddens said. “Every single supervisor said, ‘I want this for my branch library.’ ... Then I’m dealing with three school districts, so I’m honestly not sure if I can pull that one off. I will pull something off, but I don’t think I can pull that off (by the summer of 2020). That’s pretty complicated.”
District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi expressed appreciation for Giddens’ work on the meal program at the Dec. 17 Board of Supervisors meeting.
“Our libraries are evolving, and Nancy, just the fact that you’re pushing this forward to take care of our friends and our families, is a really wonderful thing ... I think I speak on behalf of this board, whatever we can do to help feed our people is wonderful, and thank you for opening up the library,” Garamendi said.
“These are the only meals some of these kids have every day,” said District 5 Supervisor Ben Stopper of the free and reduced-price meal program. “I think bringing it into the libraries is an excellent choice.”