On a Tuesday morning in mid-summer at the Sebastopol Regional Library, volunteers from the Redwood Empire Food Bank exchange two full hot and cold cooler bags for two empty ones. A library volunteer wheels the bags into a community room that is often brimming with toddlers enjoying Family Storytime or teens crafting “maker” projects. Today, kids and their families will trickle into the room again, but this time, they’ve come for a free and nutritious lunch.
For the second year in a row, the Sebastopol Library is partnering with the Redwood Empire Food Bank to fill in the summertime gap with free lunches and free books. And the connection between food and learning is not a coincidence.
“If you want to be at the top of the self-actualization pyramid, you can’t have a rumbling stomach,” said Sebastopol Library Branch Manager Mathew Rose.
In fact, the correlation between hunger and school achievement has been well documented. Studies cited by the National Education Association have shown that hungry children have lower math scores and are more likely to repeat a grade, come to school late or miss it entirely. This, plus high rates of childhood obesity, have spurred nutritionallyregulated school breakfast and lunch programs for decades. But what happens when school is out for the summer?
Unfortunately, many students who rely on these meals for much of their daily nutrition go hungry, according to the Redwood Empire Food Bank, a sponsor of the summer lunch program in Sonoma County for 13 years. The meals, which follow USDA nutritional guidelines, are prepared in Santa Rosa City Schools and Healdsburg Unified School District kitchens. Whenever possible, the food is sourced locally from farms and bakeries and the kid-friendly meals attempt to accommodate everyone — even kids with dietary restrictions.
“We want to get it right,” said Itzul Gutierrez, senior programs manager at the Redwood Empire Food Bank. “We have a commitment to helping as many kids as possible.”
The food bank sponsors free summer lunches for kids 18 and under at over 40 sites throughout the county including low-income housing complexes, parks and the Greater Boys and Girls Club. (The sites must be near a school that is eligible for the school lunch program.) However, Itzul said, the eight participating libraries are especially important places to serve children.
“The cool thing about libraries is that they’re accessible for the whole community,” she said. “They have summer reading programs, they’re air conditioned on hot days and the library can get more patrons to visit.”
As Rose explained, libraries are already working to fulfill summer learning objectives and prevent “summer slide” for students through early literacy programs like Storytime and the Five Book Challenge. The addition of free lunches to these activities fit perfectly into the library’s mission to bring information, ideas and people together to build a stronger community.
“Developing and sharing ideas, seeking and utilizing information is made easier when basic human needs have already been met,” Rose said.
According to the Redwood Empire Food Bank Hunger Index, an estimated 35 million meals were missed in Sonoma County last year. And West County is not immune to these challenges of poverty and food scarcity.