Go to the library, get a free lunch and a free book.
That’s what a lot of children and teens are doing this summer.
The response to four Pikes Peak Library District locations becoming stops for Colorado Springs School District 11’s complimentary summer lunch program has been unexpectedly huge.
In the month of June alone, the four locations — East Library, Sand Creek Library, Ruth Holley Library and Old Colorado City Library — served 4,546 meals.
“We’re seeing large increases in the program this year,” said Kent Wehri, D-11’s food and nutrition services director.
The district, which has about 26,400 students, operates 33 sites under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer meals program.
There’s no charge for children under age 18 to eat, and no questions asked. Any child can grab a lunch for free. And they don’t have to be students in D-11, Wehri said.
D-11 served 56,000 meals last summer, compared with 52,000 in the summer of 2017. This year’s numbers are tracking to top last year’s, Wehri said, adding that he hired 10 more employees to cover this year’s demand.
“It equates to more need in the community,” Wehri said. A total of six additional sites and “just getting the word out better,” also helped boost attendance.
About 4,000 books left over from school libraries also are free for the taking this summer.
Some other Colorado Springs-area school districts also participate in the federal government’s program, which reimburses districts for meals. Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 added a stop this year for a total of three, which are seeing about the same numbers as last year, according to the food services department.
D-11 also has a food truck that stops at schools, parks, swimming pools, playgrounds and mobile home communities.
Some serve nutritious sack lunches with cold sandwiches and sides like fruit cups and cheese. Others dish up hot meals such as barbecue sliders or chicken sandwiches.
Three of the library locations are new this summer.
The local public library system tested the idea last summer with one location, the Old Colorado City Library.
After 1,000 meals were served from June to August. Janina Goodwin, manager of the East Library, 5550 N. Union Blvd., inquired about an expansion.
“We knew we had eligible kids, and D-11 was willing to give it a shot with us, so we figured we’d see what happens,” she said.
The East Library is averaging 150 kids a day, Goodwin said, many of whom attend summer reading programs inside the library.
“The majority of the lunch eaters are either coming to the library or leaving when they have lunch,” she said. “We engage with the kids and educate folks about what’s happening at the library.”
Hensley Metcalf-Betts, who will enter third grade in the fall, picked out a free book at Wednesday’s lunch at the East Library.
“I like how you get to imagine the characters in the books,” she said.
D-11 Superintendent Michael Thomas visited Wednesday and talked with children, some of whom told him thank you for their lunch.
Thomas said he appreciates the library district’s willingness to partner, and not only provide summer reading opportunities but also “infuse nutrition and healthy choices to the community.”
Mom Amy Banaszak, who was sitting on the library lawn with her two children, said her family comes several times a week to a reading session in the morning and stays for lunch.
“We live right by here,” she said. “It gets them out of the house and gives them something interesting to do. It’s nice they can have lunch right after the activities.”
Her 5-year-old son, Bodie, said he loves story time at the library. And the food is “pretty good,” too, he said.
Reading over the summer helps children retain knowledge, Goodwin said, and enables them to continue learning
“We’re providing a comfortable environment when it’s hot outside, and they can keep up their reading skills, experience social interaction and have fun,” she said. “That’s why the lunches fit really well. It’s a cool program.”
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