USDA Regulations

The USDA Summer Food Service Program mandates that only children and teens ages 18 and below (and adults 18 and older who are enrolled in an education program for disabled persons) are eligible to receive free, reimbursable meals. Parents and caregivers are not allowed to eat the meals that are provided to youth unless they themselves are 18 or under.

The Value of Providing Food for Adults

Although adults generally recognize that this is a regulation that cannot be sidestepped, the library’s inability to provide food for adult parents and caregivers who accompany children and teens to Lunch at the Library programs—many of whom may also be food insecure—can be challenging for staff and volunteers. Eating meals together as a family can facilitate children’s healthy eating habits and is an integral part of many, if not most, cultures. And as Bruce et al observed during their study of public library summer meal programs in the Silicon Valley region of California:

Since the library meal programmes in the present study provided meals to both children and adults, participants discussed an overall feeling of inclusiveness as a result of the adult meal. Parent and adult participants valued the ability to eat with children and other community members. Parent participants specifically noted that eating with their children strengthened family bonds. Even adult participants who did not have children appreciated the family atmosphere that the library meal programme fostered.”[1]

While this is not an issue in every library or community, library staff may want to explore whether a mechanism to facilitate adult meals would add value to their lunch program.

Strategies for Providing Food for Adults

Public libraries in California have begun exploring how they can provide food for adult parents and caregivers at Lunch at the Library programs by partnering with food banks, using programming funds, soliciting donations from local businesses, and working with meal sponsors that are able to sell meals to adults at low cost or provide them free of charge.[2] Some examples of ways libraries have addressed parent and caregiver nutrition needs include the following:

Food Banks: Several libraries have partnered with local food banks to provide caregivers with snacks and groceries. Donations from food banks have included bags of fresh fruits and vegetables that can be eaten on site as well as taken home, non-perishable items that can be stored at the library, and funds that the library can use to purchase food for adults. It is important to note that food banks must follow rules regarding their food distribution. If libraries work with food banks they must manage the food distribution process so that, if the food is available to all patrons, it is not disruptive to the summer lunch program and does not invite non-parent/caregivers into areas where there are unaccompanied children.

Programming Funds: Libraries have used local programming funds (including funds provided by partners such as the Friends of the Library and from the library’s budget) to purchase and make available snacks such as granola bars, string cheese, fresh fruit, fruit cups, crackers, trail mix, and bottles of water. In some libraries, partner agencies that offer cooking classes can provide snacks for adults.

Local Businesses: Libraries have solicited fruit donations from local grocery stores and farmers to provide to caregivers. Additionally, other local businesses or hospital community benefit programs may be willing to subsidize the cost of adult meals. In cases where funds cannot support daily adult meals, libraries may want to consider a “Family Friday” or other themed days when adults know that adult meals will be available. This can also provide an opportunity for programming focused on parent and caregiver engagement. 

Meal Sponsors: Other libraries have worked with meal sponsors that will sell meals to caregivers for approximately $3-$4 per meal. Some meal sponsors will allow adults to work as volunteers, in which case they may receive a free meal. The meal provider will not be reimbursed for these “Program Adult” meals but the expense can be considered as operating costs. This option is at the discretion of the meal provider. If a meal sponsor provides meals to adults, the USDA mandates that children should be fed first.

Information: We strongly suggest that all Lunch at the Library sites make available information about local food resources for those over 18 to help families obtain the nourishment they need.

Implementing the Regulations

Staff may need to periodically remind parents and caregivers that the program only permits children to eat the meals. In addition to posting the required site rules in the languages spoken in your community, it can be helpful to make a general announcement that, in addition to other information, includes a reminder to parents and caregivers that only children may consume the meals. General announcements avoid targeting individuals and weekly announcements can help reinforce the rule.  Outreach materials can promote the free lunch for children while also inviting parents and caregivers to bring their own lunches.

If you would like to share a successful model for making food available for caregivers at Lunch at the Library programs, please email Kari Johnson, the Lunch at the Library Meals and Partnerships Coordinator.

[1] Janine S. Bruce, Monica M. De La Cruz, Gala Moreno, and Lisa J. Chamberlain, “Lunch at the Library: Examination of a Community-Based Approach to Addressing Summer Food Insecurity,” Public Health Nutrition, vol. 20, no. 9 (June 2017): 1640-1649.

[2] It is important for libraries to remember that if the same meals are provided to adults, all children must be provided a meal first and adult meals must be recorded separately from child meals.