Libraries and Summer Food Programs: An Intellectual Freedom Argument

General Interest

By: John Mack Freeman

pancake faceSummer is almost here! With it comes summer vacations, busier public libraries, and an influx of children and teens looking for things to do and materials to use. In addition, many libraries have begun to be involved with summer food programs. While these programs often come about as part of a push toward meeting area needs and community engagement, there is an argument to be made that engaging in summer food programs helps libraries fulfill their mission as agents and protectors of intellectual freedom.

The Article V of the Library Bill of Rights states, “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.” When it comes to the summer food programs provided by the federal government, both age and background come into play.

During the summer, libraries play an important role of stopping summer slide and engaging people, especially children and teens, with learning opportunities and collections built for self-directed exploration. However, if a child is hungry, how inclined will they be to take advantage of these opportunities? A study by Tufts University points out the link between poor nutritional opportunities and damaged cognitive development. The free and reduced meal program in many schools attacks this problem during the school year, but that service is interrupted when school is out for summer break. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch and 23 percent of students live in poverty. These students live in every part of this country, and the summer food program can be a vital link toward enabling students to receive sustenance during the summer.

Despite the fact that summer food programs are typically built as part of the social safety net meant to alleviate the issues that come with poverty, the federal program at least is structured in such a way that it is open to all individuals under the age of 18, regardless of background or need. Much like everything else the library does, a service can be developed primarily for one group, but that doesn’t necessarily mean another group won’t take part or receive value from it.

Summer food programs in the library are not an absolute imperative; no library should feel like it is being pressured into it if it doesn’t feel right for the community. That being said though, often, concerns about food in the library (including the risks of stains and spills) have an outsized space in these conversations about community engagement and providing a safe space for individuals who need it during the summer. There are all sorts of valid reasons not to pursue a summer food program (i.e. lack of staffing, other nearby offer locations). But from an intellectual freedom point of view, these services can easily form a valid part of a library’s summer services, even though they aren’t traditionally what a library “does.” They enable a level of access to the library’s services that would otherwise be unavailable due to the effects that hunger can have on learning and involvement.

If this is a service your library might be interested in for 2019, the California Library Association has put together a fantastic resource called Lunch at the Library. From there, it has a lot of advice about getting started, assessing needs, and figuring out if this service is right for a particular library.


mackJohn “Mack” Freeman is the marketing and programming coordinator for the West Georgia Regional Library. He is a past recipient of the Freedom to Read Foundation’s Conable Scholarship, and he was a 2015 ALA Emerging Leader. He currently co-chairs the GLBTRT’s Stonewall Book Award Committee and is the 2nd vice president/membership chair of the Georgia Library Association. He is interested in privacy, self-censorship, new frontiers of IF, and services to under-served communities. You can find out more about him at When not in library world, he enjoys walking Micah, the laziest blueheeler in the world, going on adventures with his husband Dale, and cooking Italian food from unintentionally snobby mid-century cookbooks. Find him on Twitter @johnmackfreeman.


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