Public libraries are stepping in to help as food insecurity grows

  • Nearly one in three low-income households in America is food insecure.
  • The benefits of the expanded supplemental nutritional assistance program implemented during the pandemic have ended.
  • Public libraries are finding innovative ways to address food inequality.
  • Libraries have long played a role in food security by distributing lunches to underserved students and helping customers apply for nutritional assistance programs. The need for such services has increased significantly during the pandemic and is about to reach a new level.

    For Americans in 32 states, March marks the end of supplemental Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits implemented in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency. (Emergency allocations had already been halted in several states, including Montana, Georgia and Indiana.) On average, households will receive at least $95 less each month, and some will even see $250 or more cuts.

    About 1 in 10 households in the US is food insecure. The rate is nearly three times higher in low-income households, those most dependent on SNAP and most affected by a more than 10 percent increase in food costs in the past year.

    Nearly half of the 17,496 libraries in the US have programs to distribute food to youth, and nearly a third provide food to adults. More than 2,500 are in “food deserts,” communities with few (if any) sources of affordable fresh food.

    In 2022, the Urban Libraries Council (ULC), with funding from the Walmart Foundation, established a Libraries and Food Security initiative to develop best practices to expand industry efforts.

    Justice, not scarcity

    Libraries are among the most trusted community institutions, with an “open to all” culture based on respect for human dignity. In discussions about food security, library leaders underlined the importance of the words used to describe the work. Because access to food is a human right, they preferred “food justice” to “shortage” or “desert.” The problem is not that the country itself has a food shortage. (In fact, nearly 40 percent of high-quality food in the U.S. is wasted.)

    Food justice programs in libraries include food banks, seed banks, nutrition and cooking skills education programs, and “market money” that can be exchanged for produce at a farmer’s market.

    Margot O’Connell is the Adult Services Librarian for the Sitka, Alaska Public Library. The population is less than 9,000. Groceries have to be delivered by plane or barge, and you can see that in the prices.

    To build food resilience, the library established the Sitka Seed Library. Residents who sign up to participate can collect seeds from a library card case. Most are heirloom seeds suitable for a wet climate without much sunlight.

    “We will make more and more people dependent on food aid programs that they didn’t need before,” she says. “Libraries play an important role because we are trusted organizations where people are welcome, without barriers to entry.”


    The Northside Branch of the Lexington Public Library, Ky. is in a food desert. A pantry in the library is stocked with dry goods, canned goods, meat, dairy, and fresh produce. There are no income or referral requirements for community members to access it.


    Lauren Boeke is a youth services coordinator at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library in Ohio, a system of 20 libraries serving approximately half a million people.

    “Our teams have been working around the clock to assist customers who need to apply for benefits, reapply for benefits or explore other options as SNAP benefits have changed,” says Boeke.

    Staff help customers fill out documents, and the library prints up to 15 pages a day for them free of charge. Many government offices only accept paperwork via scan or fax, and the libraries offer a free fax service.

    Through a partnership with a local non-profit organization, Connecting Kids to Meals, meals are provided year-round to children from birth to 18 years old at 14 library locations. A tutoring program is available during meals.

    “Kids come in every day and get a balanced meal and time to do homework together,” says Boeke. “They also interact with adults — it’s a real community-building experience.” Meal bags are available on weekends for the children to pick up and take home.

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    Maryland’s Prince George County Memorial Library System hosts an annual free summer meal program. An estimated 40,000 youth ages 18 and under live within a mile of each participating library.


    Dignity and choice

    The operator of a café in the county library’s main building was already struggling before the pandemic and decided not to reopen when COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, says Jason Kucsma, the executive director of Toledo Lucas County Public Library.

    This created an opportunity for a partnership between the library and SAME (So All May Eat), which has operated a successful Denver non-profit restaurant for 17 years.

    The Denver cafe was founded by a couple who had worked in soup kitchens and wanted to provide an atmosphere of food relief with less stigma, says Brad Reubendale, CEO of SAME.

    Guests order from a menu of freshly cooked food, but there are no fixed prices. They “pay” in any way, whether they donate money, volunteer, or give products.

    SAME Café has been the inspiration for dozens of “pay what you can” restaurant projects, but not all have survived. Reubendale’s dream was to create cafes in other cities following the model that has kept the Denver restaurant stable and self-sufficient for nearly two decades.

    Community leaders from Toledo had visited SAME’s restaurant in Denver and wanted to bring one to their city. They spent three years looking for a suitable commercial space before their search led them to Kucsma and the library.

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    Located in the headquarters of the Toledo Lucas County Public Library, SAME Café Toledo offers a menu of nutritious dishes with no fixed prices. Customers “pay” in any way, whether they donate money, volunteer, or give products.


    Nutrition and training

    SAME Café Toledo opened in November 2022 and is operated by five employees of the non-profit organization. “I am amazed at the success of this place,” says Kucsma. “You see families coming to the library, business leaders, people who are homeless, and they’re all eating the same nutritious and delicious food.”

    A “Cook to Work” program offers training modules covering the basics of working in a professional kitchen. If a volunteer completes the entire program, SAME pays for training that gives them a food manager certificate, improving their job prospects.

    Social work interns and high school students who plan to attend culinary school work at the cafe, as well as volunteers of all kinds who value the mission. “There’s power and beauty and resilience in seeing all the different types of people come together, just bump into each other,” says Kucsma.

    For Reubendale, this success confirms that the model can be replicated in other libraries across the country. Downtown libraries often have empty or underutilized cafe spaces and are in prime locations. Since opening restaurant Toledo, he’s been hearing from libraries in several cities that are considering bringing SAME cafes to their buildings.

    In recent decades, a number of unfunded mandates have been pushed to libraries, says Kucsma. In response, some have hired social workers. Some have self-funded feeding programs. SAME Café Toledo is an example of an approach that can keep pace with the need: enabling outside organizations to use public library spaces to connect with and serve the community.

    Healing communities

    Extended SNAP benefits end as May 11 has been declared the last day of the COVID-19 public health emergency. But the ongoing disruption from the pandemic is a major reason why many fear the country is approaching a “hunger cliff.”

    Libraries are in a unique position to help communities through this period, Kucsma believes, helping them heal from cultural and political divisions. “I’m looking for ways we can bring different types of people together to experience each other,” he says. “The cafe is reflected in the daily lunch service from 11am to 2:30pm.”

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