OAKLAND -- This summer marked a first for library branch manager Peter Villasenor: Not a single child has asked him for lunch money.
They no longer need to. From Monday to Friday, children eat for free at 10 of the Oakland Public Library's branches, from Eastmont to Temescal, through a unique partnership between the Oakland Public Library, the city and the Alameda County Food Bank.
On Wednesday, Villasenor sat at one of the small tables in the children's section of the Cesar Chavez branch in East Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood -- a bustling, cheery place decorated with elaborate masks and colorful garlands of papel picado.
"The library's evolving with the times," Villasenor said. "If we have the space here and we have the volunteers, why not offer kids the services they normally get at their schools?"
For families on a budget and children without enough safe places to play, libraries have become increasingly essential, especially during the summertime. But last year, librarians from East Oakland's Eastmont branch decided it wasn't enough to offer children food for thought; too many kids were coming hungry.
Food insecurity is a yearlong issue for struggling families, but it's often made worse in the summertime, especially as districts cut back on summer programs that serve free meals. In California last summer, 84 percent of the children who received free or subsidized meals during the school year did not participate in a summer meal program. The rate was slightly lower in Alameda County, but it was still just 73 percent.
The notion of serving food in the library was something of a revolutionary idea, said Children's Services Manager Nina Lindsay, but the need was so great that they took the chance. Last year, with support from the Alameda County Food Bank and the city of Oakland, four branches began to offer a free lunch to any child, 18 or younger, who showed up; this year, the Summer Lunch Program expanded to 11 meal programs at 10 branches five days a week.
About 250 volunteers, recruited by the food bank, have lent a hand this year; the response to the call for help was so great, some were actually turned away.
At the Cesar Chavez branch, 16-year-old Kevin Lares selected a few books before lunch and went back for more afterward. He came with his brothers Alex and Jesus and their mother, Rosa. The family visits one of the Oakland library branches at least weekly, said Kevin, a science fiction fan who is known to whip through hundreds of pages in a day or two. He said the food he eats at the library gives him extra energy -- which he might need as he hunkers down to start on the pile of books he collected.
Lindsay said the libraries were already so busy during the summer that the goal wasn't to boost traffic. Rather, she said, it was to encourage children and families to stay longer -- and to help the kids be more focused and attentive while they are there. Villasenor said he hoped that as families spend more time in the library, they will take advantage of more of its programs, such as gaming for teenagers and computer classes for adults. Midday Wednesday, the teen section of the Chavez branch was full of young patrons reading, surfing the Internet, listening to music or just hanging out.
While library employees have yet to crunch participation numbers for the summer, their goals seem to be bearing fruit. The Wednesday art class at the Eastmont branch drew 35 people this week; before, it averaged about 15, said Amy Martin, who manages the public library in East Oakland's Eastmont Mall.
Martin estimated that roughly half of the children come to her branch each day without a parent -- the library permits those as young as 8 to do so. "For a lot of these kids, it's pretty clear there's no adult feeding them," she said.
The atmosphere can grow a bit hectic just before the meal is served, Martin said, but after lunch, an air of calm settles into the crowded space as the children read and color.
"I think food does a lot for people," she said. "It's such a basic need."
For a list of all summer lunch sites in Alameda County, visit: http://accfb.org/pdfs/2012Summer_Lunch.pdf
Source: Alameda County Food Bank
few kids get free meals in the summer
The percent of children, by county, who received subsidized meals during the school year -- but not during the summer.
Alameda County: 73 percent
Contra Costa: 83
San Mateo: 88
Santa Clara: 88
Source: California Food Policy Advocates