Basic definitions, information, and questions to help libraries get started.

Questions to Ask

  • Is there a need in the community for this program?
  • Where else are summer meals being served in our community?
  • Is this program right for our library? Is it right for our library right now?
  • Can our facility accommodate becoming a summer meal site?
  • What assets (including summer reading and other programs) does the library already have in summer? How can we leverage those assets and what do we need to do to supplement those assets in order to be able to operate a summer meal program?


How can the Lunch at the Library program help?

Lunch at the Library provides resources and technical assistance to help libraries establish successful summer meal sites.


  • grant funds;
  • training workshops
  • resource-rich website
  • community listserv
  • connections with libraries that already offer a meal service
  • evaluation tools and support
  • map of current public library summer meal programs

Technical assistance:

  • help assessing whether Lunch at the Library is the right program for the library right now;
  • connections with meal sponsors
  • help assessing how many meals the library might serve, how many volunteers the library might need, and other potential program logistics
  • help finding funding opportunities


Definitions: summer meal sites and summer meal sponsors

Typically, libraries that offer summer meal programs operated as summer meal sites. A summer meal site is the physical location where the meals are served. Site staff are tasked with handling and serving meals, monitoring food to ensure it complies with health and safety regulations and other program rules, such as tracking the number of meals served, and record-keeping. Summer meal sites do not have to pay for the meals that they serve.

The summer meal sponsor, often a school district, city/county agency, or nonprofit organization, acts as the administrative and fiscal agent for the program. The sponsor provides the meals that are served at the site. The meal service must comply with requirements specified by USDA and the state agency. Learn more about who is eligible to be a sponsor and how sponsorship works here. A small number of libraries are now starting to become meal sponsors as well as meal sites. To find out more, and to be connected with libraries that have become meal sponsors, please contact Lunch at the Library project staff.


Operations and site responsibilities

In general, as a summer meal site, a library is responsible for:

  • providing a supervised and safe environment for families;
  • following food handling and safety guidelines outlined by the meal sponsor;
  • maintaining accurate records of meals served, extra meals, food temperatures, etc. and making sure to provide that information to the sponsor each week or other agreed upon time;
  • food ordering – letting the meal sponsor know how many meals the library will need;
  • communicating with the meal sponsor as issues arise;
  • making sure that signage is posted in a visible location outside the library to let the public know about the program;
  • making sure site rules are posted — one key rule and mandate from USDA is that the free lunches are available only to children and teens; accompanying adults may not eat the meals; and
  • making sure that staff and volunteers understand and adhere to USDA’s non-discrimination policy.

To help ensure that operations run smoothly, libraries should ensure that the primary staff person or volunteer has a back-up so that a knowledgeable and trained person can step in if needed. The secondary contact should be sufficiently trained on procedures and program information should be stored in a centralized location. Keep a central binder that includes materials such as:

  • USDA rules and regulations (provided by the sponsor)
  • Sponsor contact information
  • Procedures for food delivery, handling, and serving
  • Volunteer and other library staff contact information (as appropriate)
  • Emergency/safety procedures
  • Notes – a place to share reminders, supply needs, etc.
  • Protocol for talking to media or other issues that may require involvement of library leadership.

Other items to know and be mindful of:

  • The meal sponsor is required to provide training to summer meal site staff. The sponsor will provide greater detail about USDA/CDE regulations in addition to local health department requirements. Libraris must plan for staff and volunteers to attend the meal sponsor’s training sessions. Sign up early to secure your spaces.
  • A summer meal program will bring extra trash to the library so be sure to arrange for more garbage containers and a staging place for clean-up.
  • Meals might be served in an open space in the library or in a separate room. If meals will be served in the library’s meeting room, remember to book it well ahead of time. Consider who will be using the room after the meal service and allot enough time to clean up.
  • Discuss with the meal sponsor what items need to be on hand (e.g., a refrigerator, serving implements, cleaning items) and find out what they can provide. Different sponsors have different requirements and provide different items.
  • Meals are very rarely delivered late, but be sure that staff and volunteers know what to do and who to call if the meals don’t turn up on time. Have a back-up plan for engaging families with programs (either active or passive) if the meal is late.
  • If the meal sponsor does not allow uneaten meals to be saved,  work with them to see whether this food might be donated.
  • If the meal sponsor allows second meals to be served, make sure that each child has received a first meal. Be sure to talk to the meal sponsor about how to record second meals.


Best Practices

A number of best practices have emerged among libraries that offer Lunch at the Library programs. Resources to help libraries implement these practices are available throughout this site.

  • Create a welcoming and enriching space for families.
  • Greet families as they come into the meal service room.
  • Try to provide food for the adults who accompany children and teens to the meal service.
  • Give away books to families.
  • Introduce families to the summer reading program and help them take part all summer long.
  • Provide programs and learning opportunities for the whole family.
  • Ensure that library staff participate in the program (not just volunteers).
  • Ensure that volunteers are well-trained, specifically in the areas of program regulations, promoting library services, and working with people of all ages.

USDA summer nutrition programs are offered in all 50 states and administered at the state level. Libraries and partners outside of California should contact their respective state agency to learn more about summer food program procedures in their state.


Securing Support from Library Staff and Leadership

All staff who will be involved in implementing the program should have the opportunity to be involved in planning and preparation. This includes janitorial and facilities staff who might be impacted by the volume of families and the meal service. Volunteers are an integral part of the program, and volunteer coordinator staff should be included in the planning process.

Provide training and information sessions for staff. Ensure that everyone has a voice and is informed about the program. Talk with staff about what the program might look like, how it will be planned and implemented, and who will carry out different tasks. Discuss project goals for the library system as a whole and for individual branches.

Lunch at the Library should not be implemented exclusively as a youth services project; the program engages families with the library and it is a project for the entire branch or library. It can be a good idea for support staff, branch managers, or administrative staff to lead the project if they are less busy during the summer than frontline youth services staff.

Be open about the challenges that the project might bring and encourage everyone to work together to meet those challenges. Discuss common concerns and questions. These might include:

  • Food wastage: some meal sponsors have regulations mandating that uneaten food is thrown out at the end of the day, which can be a concern for staff, volunteers, and families.
  • Eligibility: parents and caregivers are not permitted to eat the meals that are provided to youth unless they themselves are 18 or under. It is important that everyone understands the reasons that underly program regulations and are ready to implement all regulations sensitively.
  • Community need: it is important to remember that you cannot use appearances to judge whether the community needs the meal service.


Please note: The Lunch at the Library guides and resources represent the viewpoints and experiences of those involved with Lunch at the Library, exclusively. Questions regarding USDA summer nutrition program policies and procedures should always be directed to the state agency administering the program or USDA.