The Bristol Public Library is a proud participant of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Out-of-School Time Initiative, which provides free online resources to help out-of-school programs encourage and support kids to eat healthier and move more.
Our story began in April 2015, when I attended a Bristol School Readiness meeting to share with the community good things happening for children. The guest speaker from End Hunger Connecticut! was in search of locations to host free summer lunches.
The Bristol Public Library, located in a neighborhood where 42 percent of children live below the poverty line, immediately came to mind. A free summer lunch program would work perfectly with our robust summer reading program. I could picture it already: story times, reading clubs, special programs all day and free lunches, too!
Our goal? Make sure all children get a nutritious and healthy meal daily while staying intellectually engaged all summer long.
Succeed we did — the first three summers of program resulted in over 900 new library cards for children, the circulation of more than 106,000 items in the children’s and young adult departments, and most importantly, the provision of 8,500 free lunches.
We were so proud of our success, but knew we wanted to spread our wings further.
Sound Minds, Sound Bodies
We introduced exercise, mindfulness and creative food preparation activities to lunchtime. Children were thrilled to not only participate in the free lunch program, but explore something new and “good for you”. We launched a “Yoga After Lunch” program, where children discover the relaxing art of stretching and the beauty of calming thoughts. The yoga instructor encourages children to participate in the rhythm of a story by listening to words and moving to action. They love it!
For our young adults, we aim to provide opportunities to connect with one another and take a break from screens. Older kids hang out in a designated teen area and enjoy “Dudes’ Day Out” or “Girls’ Day Out” activities that promote safe and healthy socialization. They also love to get their hands dirty, making slime, painting on canvas and experimenting with healthy ingredient cookbooks.
Partnering Locally to Expand our Impact
As our program has continued to grow, we’ve sought partnership with our community. The Bristol Elks club sponsored a safety fair at the library where children received free, fitted bike helmets to wear during visits to the library for activities and free lunch. We also invited local grocery stores to the baby and toddler story time, as well as hosted several of their dietitians to introduce healthy snacks and help children learn about fresh, local fruits and vegetables.
Tips for Success in Summer Meals & Beyond
Hosting healthy events and competitions at the library inspires school principals to push summer reading, library visits and free lunch. For example, we rewarded the school whose students read the most over the summer with a party. All children earned raffle tickets to win prizes to sporting events, autographed sports memorabilia, and reading-inspired goodies.
We are also fortunate to have the support of Foodshare, which promotes free lunch sites in our area and organizes sport activities with athletes and volunteers from ESPN, headquartered in Bristol. At Foodshare’s community events, children of all ages get to stay active and learn from food experts who lead them through delicious yet nutritious games.
Libraries are truly an “intellectual playground.” They are places for children to learn, move, eat healthy, and stay safe. At Bristol Public Library, we’re proud to support kids in being well-read, well-fed, stronger and energized for a new school year.
About the Author: Valerie Toner is the supervisor of children’s services at the Bristol Public Library in Bristol, CT. She has been in the library profession for over 30 years, working in nearly every aspect — including reference, branch manager, young adult services, children’s services and programming manager. Her career has taken her to libraries in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Connecticut.