Over the nearly 10 years she’s worked at the Rockwood branch of the Multnomah County Library, Kylie Park has noticed something about its summer customers. As soon as schools closed for the year, the line waiting for the library to open in the morning would include kids, and some of them would be there most of the day.
“The kids are here for a long time,” she says. “It’s a safe environment. It’s a positive way to spend the day.”
And over the course of the long summer day, some kids would ask librarians if they had anything to eat. Others would just look hungry.
Rockwood, out by Southeast 180th Ave., has become one of the most economically crunched areas of Portland. At nearby Alder Elementary School, 95 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, tops in the state.
It’s not easy to lead Oregon in that category. According to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap 2013 survey, issued Monday, the state has a towering 29.1 percent child food insecurity level — although Oregon has lost its previous No. 1 national status to New Mexico.
In Portland, school ended Friday, meaning that it was also the last day of school food programs — the breakfasts, lunches and snacks that provide up to half the calories of many Oregon kids. You don’t need to consult a library to know that for a lot of those kids it could be a long summer.
This year, the Rockwood library will reach out to their boys and girls of summer. With the help of Volunteers of America and Catering for a Cause, the library will be offering hot lunches as part of the federal summer food program, the first library around here to participate.
“We’re very excited,” says Park, administrator of the branch. “Rockwood is a great place to start.” If it works out, library summer food programs could spread to other branches, and even beyond the borders of Multnomah County.
The summer food effort is the rare federal nutrition program that is underutilized, with federal money available for more locations. According to “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation,” a report issued Monday by the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center, only one in six children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch participate in the summer programs.
Availability is limited partly due to the reductions in other programs, such as summer school, that could host a food service. Some sites that are in operation are now open for fewer days.
Oregon’s persistently high level of child food insecurity, together with the availability of federal support, calls for broader thinking about summer food locations, seeking ways to send food where kids already are. Opening one at the Rockwood branch library is a literate example — and a promising new direction for hunger programs.
Whether the library brings kids to food, or food brings kids to the library, the innovation bears the seeds of a fertile summer.