Columbus libraries provide free, nutritious lunch to local kids

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Libraries want to help children learn.

But when children are hungry, that learning can be difficult.

“They have to have that nutrition to learn. It’s their development fuel,” said Kim Clifford, youth services manager at the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Hilltop branch.

With school out of session, many local children lose their main source of nutrition, since Columbus City Schools serve free lunch to all students.

To fill that gap, some library branches, through meals provided by the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, have been offering free lunches during the summer for 18 years. Last year, they served 30,000 free lunches and snacks, providing food for ages newborn to 18 at a cost of more than $60,000.

The cost per lunch this year is $3.65, and 85 cents per snack, said Julie Pruett Bishop, the parks department’s food office supervisor.

Fifteen branches are offering free lunch this summer, and some offer a free snack. All children can attend, with no library card required.

Before the program, Clifford said children often would come to the library’s staff and say, “I’m hungry!”

“It’s nice knowing they’re getting fed,” she said.

Clifford has worked for Columbus libraries since 1987. She started her career shelving books and worked her way up the library system. Now, she oversees youth programs at the Hilltop branch.

According to Clifford, Columbus library staff provide children important “developmental assets” beyond books. These assets can be something as simple asknowing a child’s name, or as Clifford says, being a positive and consistent influence in their lives.

“Some children just don’t have that,” Clifford added.

Youth services manager Laura Johnson oversees free lunches and snacks at the Linden branch. Like Clifford, she agrees that this service is “critical to their learning and development.”

Johnson sees many of the same children during the free lunches. As more kids arrive during the summer, the library will make sure everyone has a meal and will adjust upward the number of lunches it provides.

Linden offers lunch and an afternoon snack five days a week. It also offers a snack on Saturdays.

Each lunch is a well-rounded meal, such as a turkey sandwich, fruit cup, fruit juice and chocolate milk. A typical snack is fruit juice and crackers. According to Johnson, all meals are free of pork and peanuts.

While most children attend lunch on their own, some show up with their parents.

Kayla Lloyd, 29, was at Hilltop’s lunch on Thursday with her children, 6-year-old Jaxon and 4-year-old Lucas. The family usually attends every local free event they hear about.  

Lloyd is a single mother who is studying data analytics at Columbus State Community College. She also works as a data analyst at the Ohio History Connection.

And on top of her own schooling, she’s home-schooling Jaxon and Lucas.

Jaxon suffers from severe food allergies involving gluten, soy, egg and peanut products. Because of his dietary needs, he can eat only very specific — and often expensive — food that has no chance of triggering an adverse reaction.

But that isn’t always an option for Lloyd, so she relies on food pantries, food stamps and free lunches to ensure that her children get the nutrition they need.

“So much of my budget goes to food,” Lloyd said. “I basically survive off of strawberries and bananas.”

Parents and caregivers who want to take advantage of the summer lunch program can visit the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s event webpage.


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