Most children count down the days until school gets out for summer, but for those who receive their only meal of the day during school hours, the thought of three months off does not hold the same feeling of excitement.
Over 90,000 children on Long Island receive free or reduced-cost school lunches, but when summer arrives their main source of nourishment is taken away. Luckily, Island Harvest, the biggest hunger relief organization on Long Island, has a summer food service program for children in this exact position. And, for the second year in a row, Riverhead Free Library is a feeding site for North Fork youth in need.
“Island Harvest approached us last year about becoming an open feeding site,” said Laurie Harrison, head of children’s services at the library. “They wanted us to provide, along with the location, an educational and literary aspect, so that’s why I agreed.”
In addition to the food, the library also encourages the children to take part in the summer reading program and collects book donations so children can leave with at least one book each.
“I feel that it’s not just a meal project, because it was very evident last year that this was most of the children and their caretakers’ first time at the library,” acting Library Director Pamm Trojanowski said. “It’s a chance to feed not only the body, but the mind as well.
“When they come they find out that they can get a library card, which opens a whole other world of opportunity for them. It’s just amazing for us on staff to watch.”
Island Harvest chooses communities for the summer food service program by looking at the number of children who qualify for discounted or free school lunches in the area. Just over 50 percent of students in the Riverhead school district qualify. Ms. Harrison also said the Riverhead demographics fit the census requirements to take part of the program.
This summer, the program starts on July 8 and will run for five weeks. Children under the age of 18 can go to the library Mondays through Fridays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to enjoy a free, nutritious lunch.
The visitors don’t have to meet any criteria to receive the meal, but children under the age of 10 must be accompanied by an adult. The Riverhead Library is different from most of the other summer feeding sites in Suffolk County because it is an open site, meaning that community members do not need to enroll to receive a meal. Anyone can walk in during the open time slot.
“One thing about being an open site is that we’re never sure who will be coming through the door,” Ms. Harrison said. “We don’t know their age, or how many there will be that day — it’s challenging.”
Typically, children receive a sandwich, milk, fruit cup and an apple. On one special day of the week they are treated to a slice of pizza, milk, juice, fruit cup and a granola bar.
Last year, the library gave out 1,068 meals during the 39 days of the program, and that was with very little publicity.
“I think we barely scratched the iceberg,” she said of the numbers. “It’s such a big community and the library is difficult to get to and across town from a lot of people. We’re just doing the little bit that we can to help.”
Though being a feeding site is a lot of work for the library, Ms. Harrison said that being involved is very rewarding for all of the employees.
“It’s definitely hectic having to count the food when it comes in, making sure everything is fresh … it’s time consuming,” she said. “But it really is so satisfying to see the children being able to eat and relax and read for a little while.
“You just don’t realize how many hungry people there are until you literally see them sitting there waiting for a little something to eat that day.”