KDL’s summer feeding program helps to fill gaps in student nutrition

Access to food is important and, for many young children, their most nutritious meals occur at school. On weekends and in the summer months, many students go without food, but Kent District Library (KDL) has a program that aims to help fill those gaps in nutrition. 

Lunches at the Library, otherwise known as the “Gather 2 Grow” program, helps fuel growing bodies and keeps young minds engaged by offering free lunches to students ages 2-18 (or up to age 26 with different mental or physical abilities), weekdays from June into August. 

Joyanne Huston-Swanson, community engagement and bookmobile librarian for KDL, says the food program, in partnership with Feeding America West Michigan has been going on for a few years. 

“KDL has partnered with Feeding America West Michigan for summer student lunches since 2018. It began at four of our smaller branches that were more rural, which had higher rates of students at their local schools receiving free or reduced lunches,” she says. “It grew in 2019 and included about 10 branch locations.” 

As with most organizations, they had to change their format during the pandemic. “In 2020, we had to pivot and go to the grab-and-go option in order to meet the COVID-19 guidelines for health and safety,” Huston-Swanson says. “All of those pickup times and locations were also outdoors because our branches were just kind of opening up to limited services and patrons in the building. We had to keep our occupancy numbers lower as well at the time, so we couldn’t congregate.”

Last year, many branches kept with the grab-and-go option and outdoor pickup locations, as is the same for this year. 

“In 2022, many of our branches are still opting for the grab-and-go option for that same reason — because of not having a dedicated space that allows the students to eat on-site,” Huston-Swanson says. “Even though the state has kind of removed their waivers for partners to do the grab-and-go option, Feeding America West Michigan has partnered with alternate sources of funding, so we are not tied to those government guidelines for the meal service. We can still provide the grab-and-go option, so that’s what we’ve opted to do in KDL.”

Huston-Swanson says the program’s community impact has continually grown. “Today, there are 15 branches participating this year, plus the Bookmobile, so 16 total. Last year, we served over 11,000 meals, and the year before, it was closer to 10,000. Whether that’s just due to the changing needs in our communities, or if it’s that we’re being more successful in getting the word out that we’re providing the lunches, I can’t draw a direct correlation.”

As for the meals themselves, each free lunch includes a protein source, a fruit/vegetable and a grain. Previous meals have included options ranging from honey graham crackers with peanut butter, sunflower seeds, Craisins, string cheese, peaches, pears or applesauce cups and a 100% juice.

“We try to provide a main entree option, a nut-free option and a vegetarian one, like hummus and flavored whole-grain crackers,” Huston-Swanson says, “some really good, well-rounded, nutritious meals.”

“We want all the calories that kids are bringing into their systems to count, so having them be healthy, more whole-grain and more whole-food options is always better than more of the empty calories they can get from other types of snack foods,” she says.

The meals are recommended for ages 2 and up, factoring in potential choking hazards. The program is set to launch June 6 and continue Monday through Friday until August 12. The participating branch locations include Alpine Township, Byron Township, Comstock Park, Engelhardt, Gaines Township, Grandville, Kelloggsville, Kentwood, Rockford, Nelson Township, Plainfield Township, Spencer Township, Tyrone Township, Walker and Wyoming branches. Each branch has varying times and pick up spots for the program, so it is recommended to call the respective location for more detailed information.

Students or families do not have to register or RSVP in advance, they are welcome to just show up at the branches. Huston-Swanson says all the information will be updated on KDL’s website by June 1 and there will be flyers and posters in specific participation locations with more info.
“We always hope we’re having a good impact in our communities and providing resources for the need like the lunches,” she says. “We know the need for free and reduced lunches isn’t going away or decreasing for many of our school systems. When students aren’t in school for the summer, those students still experience food insecurity, so being able to come to our libraries and pick up a nutritious meal, it’s just another way we can continue to meet those needs. Hopefully, it can help them to trust us in fueling their minds as well, with books, activities and programs we provide throughout the summer months.”

Photos courtesy of Kent District Library

Literacy Matters is a series focused on the importance of knowledge, community resources seeking to remove barriers to access, and the value of our library systems to society. Literacy Matters is supported by Kent District Library. 

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]
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