Local libraries offer free lunch
Summer is most notably known as a vacation from the busy school year. But for some, it’s a time often spent hungry.
According to Island Harvest, a Long Island food bank, many children receive their primary source of nourishment during school hours. Over 118,000 children on Long Island receive free or reduced-cost school lunches, meaning, when school lets out, those children are left without a daily free meal.
Superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford School District, Dr. Michael Hynes, said close to 52 percent of the K-12 students in his district receive free or reduced lunch. Superintendent of South Country Schools, Dr. Joseph Giani, said 57 percent of his student population also receives free or reduced price lunch.
In response to those numbers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsored the Summer Food Service Program about eight years ago to provide free lunches and snacks, Monday through Saturday, to programs operated by government agencies, summer camps, community centers, libraries, health centers, churches and community organizations on Long Island.
In 2016, the summer feeding program served 153,464 meals to 5,000 low-income children at 66 sites in Nassau and Suffolk counties. This summer, according to Island Harvest vice president of programs Allison Puglia, it looks like they will be serving closer to 200,000 lunches to over 5,000 children at 70 sites.
“Childhood food insecurity is a national health crisis, with close to 16 million children in the United States at risk of hunger,” said Randi Shubin Dresner, president and CEO of Island Harvest Food Bank. “For children who depend on school breakfast and lunch programs during the school year, the Summer Food Service Program helps us provide critical food support to help them through the summer months.”
The program operates at select sites including the Patchogue-Medford, South Country and Brookhaven libraries. Jamie Papandrea, director of the Brookhaven Free Library, said they were among the first local libraries to jump on board about five years ago, despite the library’s no food or drink policy.
Now, five days a week, the library serves up free lunches to anyone 18 years or younger (21 for those with special needs) with no questions asked; not even a library card is necessary.
“Hunger is a much more widespread issue than people realize,” she said. “This is just our way to help those who are living in hunger.”
The small library packs a punch when it comes to programing and has even set up a tent on their lawn to accommodate their commitment to the free lunch program. ”Being a part of this program is just a no-brainer,” she added.
Just like Brookhaven, the Patchogue-Medford Library was one of the first to serve up lunch. The lunches, according to the semi-retired librarian assistant who helped jump-start the program, Mindy Musetti, are provided by Stop and Shop. She said they provide a weekly menu to order from, usually consisting of a turkey or cheese sandwich, or chicken salad and a fresh piece of fruit and milk or juice — all packed up in individual paper bags and stored in an iced cooler for freshness.
The lunches are served from noon to 1 p.m. in the children’s section of the library. Usually about 50 show and as low as about 25 depending on the day, but both libraries have seen up to 75 on really busy days in July.
Paulette Green, children’s library clerk at the Pat-Med Library, also helps run the program. She said this year they have even begun offering free lunch at the newly renovated Carnegie Library on West Main Street in Patchogue. Usually, she said, they average about a dozen children.
Patchogue resident Heather Mirabile, who brings her kids in tow for programming and lunch, said, “We love to stay and have a nice lunch. It brings our community together.”
Cornell Cooperative also frequently visits the library, passing out free healthy, simple and affordable recipes and samples during the free lunch hours.
“I am so thankful that the Patchogue-Medford Library serves our children free lunch during the summer, because it is so vital to our mission of having all children’s basic needs met,” added Hynes. “It truly takes a village to raise our children.”
And for the first time, the South Country Library began serving breakfast — to fill another meal gap during the summer months. They, too, are an open site. Every morning — five days a week — children have a choice between two individually wrapped cereal boxes accompanied by milk, crackers and an apple sauce.
“They can come here for breakfast then head over to Pat-Med or Brookhaven library for lunch,” said Jen Marin, head of the children’s department at the South Country Library. “We hope they also see what the library has to offer,” added assistant library director Patrick O’Leary.
The program will run through August. For more information, call the National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-348-6479 or visit their website at www.islandharvest.org and select Nassau or Suffolk to find a Summer Food Service Program near you.
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