Please find below some basic definitions, information, and questions to help you begin to establish a summer meal program at your library.

Some questions to ask as you get started

  • 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 California Library Association help?

CLA provides technical assistance to help library staff establish successful summer meal sites. We:

  • help library staff decide whether Lunch at the Library is right for their library right now;
  • help library staff find and connect with meal sponsors;
  • help library staff connect with mentors at other public library summer meal sites;
  • offer training workshops;
  • maintain a resource-rich website and mentorship program to help library staff establish new sites;
  • provide information about California’s existing summer meal sites to help you assess how many meals you might serve, how many volunteers you might need, and other potential program logistics;
  • maintain a community listserv and map of California’s public library summer meal programs;
  • provide libraries with evaluation tools and support to help you assess the impact of your program and help us maintain statewide data on California’s summer meal programs; and
  • look for funding opportunities to help library staff set up and maintain their summer meal programs.

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 will be 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 us.

Finding a meal sponsor and determining eligibility

Before you begin planning for your library to become a summer meal site, you should seek out a summer meal sponsor which will act as the fiscal and administrative agent for your program. The best places to start are:

Because the USDA Summer Food Service program is designed to serve children in low-income areas, your sponsor will work with you to determine whether your library is eligible to participate. Every summer meal site must qualify to participate using either school or census data. To qualify using school data, the library site must be located in the attendance area of an elementary, middle or high school in which at least 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch Program. To qualify using census data, the site must be located within a Census Block Group in which at least 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. To obtain eligibility information, contact or access:

  • Your local school district’s child nutrition department
  • California Department of Education (CDE)’s Summer Food Service Unit (800-952-5609)
  • Food Research and Action Center Summer Food Mapper

Operations and site responsibilities

In general, as a summer meal site, you will be responsible for:

  • providing a supervised and safe environment for the participating families;
  • following food handling and safety guidelines outlined by your 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 your sponsor know how many meals you will need;
  • communicating with your 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 your operations run smoothly, make sure that your primary staff person or volunteer has a back-up so you have a knowledgeable and trained person to step in, in the event that your primary contact is absent. Make sure that the secondary contact is sufficiently trained on procedures and that program information is stored in a centralized location. It may be a good idea to 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.

Some other items to know and be mindful of, include:

  • Your 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. Be sure to plan for staff and volunteers to attend your meal sponsor’s training sessions. Sign up early to secure your spaces.
  • The 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 you’re planning to serve meals in the library’s meeting room, remember to book it well ahead of time. Consider who will be coming into the room after you each day and be sure you allot enough time to clean up before they come in.
  • Discuss with your meal sponsor what items you need to have on hand (e.g., a refrigerator, serving implements, cleaning items) and what they will 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. You don’t want to have a number of hungry patrons in the library and no food to serve them. Have a back-up plan for engaging families with programs (either active or passive) if the meal is late.
  • If you are not permitted to save meals that are on eaten on the day of delivery, work with your meal sponsors to see whether you may donate this food.
  • If your sponsor allows second meals to be served, make sure that each child has received a first meal. Be sure to talk to your sponsor about how to record second meals.

Feeding Adults

Staff may need to periodically remind parents/caregivers that the program only permits children to eat the meals. In addition to posting the required site rules, it can be helpful to make a general announcement that, in addition to other information, includes a reminder to parents/caregivers that only children may consume the meals. A general announcement avoids targeting individuals and weekly announcements can help reinforce the rule. Some ways to support the understanding around this delicate issue include:

  • Building messaging in outreach materials that invites parents to bring their own lunch but kids eat for free.
  • Working with sponsor to find a local business to underwrite the cost of adult meals (adults will be given a ticket and those meals will be recorded separately).
  • Finding a partner that can provide meals for adults.
  • Working with sponsor to provide a list of local food pantries or other resources.
  • Securing produce donations from the local grocery store, food bank or other organization for adults to bring home.
  • Giving out cards or flyers, to everyone, that list sources of food for those over 18.

Best Practices

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

  • Create a welcoming and enriching space in which to serve the meals.
  • Try to provide food for the adults who accompany children and teens to the meal service.
  • Obtain books to give away to families.
  • Introduce families to the summer reading program and help them participate 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 — in relation to program regulations, promoting library services, and working with people of all ages.
  • Greet families as they come into the meal service room.

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

Please note: The Lunch at the Library guides and resources represent the viewpoints of CLA, and the 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.