Years ago when I was completing my library school program I ran out of food. I was working three jobs and living on a student loan but that week the numbers just didn’t add up. Fortunately I had friends who kindly allowed me to come to supper that night and the next day I got my pay cheque and was able to buy groceries. That isn’t really such a significant story except for one simple fact, over four million Canadians including more than a million children experience some level of food insecurity.
This is when an individual or a family does not have access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. It can have significant impacts on health including the development of conditions such as asthma and depression which in turn creates long term costs for our health care system. Additionally people who are food insecure often will not take advantage of community services such as food banks. Food insecurity is closely linked to household income with 70% of people on income support having the highest rates.
It would be a mistake to assume food insecurity is only associated with the unemployed or “homeless”. As my example shows, I was student with a loan and three part-time jobs when I ran out of food and while we can discuss my budgeting skills (not great!) the point is that food insecurity is far more pervasive within our communities than we realize. Good examples might include underemployed people, single parent families, social assistance recipients, members of First Nations and recent immigrants.
Often these groups have multiple and complex needs relating to income, health, literacy, gender and race. A simple library program to help food insecure patrons also creates opportunities for additional service delivery as the library can direct the patron on to other agencies and organizations mandated to meet their needs. The ingredients for a simple meal can provide the “hook” within a community of the issue and its solutions. Building awareness of community services and resources also build’s the patron’s self-confidence as they learn to navigate complex and possibly intimidating community institutions.
Bottles of pasta sauce and spaghetti can be made available to patrons at the circulation desk who bring a card, a dummy book or DVD case discreetly selected from somewhere in the library. Libraries can manage this in any way they prefer. Some might want to create an explanatory display near the library entrance or place posters around the community. Others may direct food insecure patrons to circulation or reference desk depending on the level of support they believe the patron needs. Cost can be managed by budgeting the amount the library can afford on a weekly or monthly basis. The program can also be used as an opportunity to develop partnerships with local retailers and service groups. There is a lot of space here for making a difference, there is also a lot of space for making mistakes. But any reasonably busy library has an array of front line staff who are well versed in delivering customer service. Bringing staff and community partners into the discussion of the program design and delivery is a good way create a nuanced effective program with community and staff buy-in.
As safe and welcoming spaces libraries aspire to attract members of the community who might not be welcomed or feel comfortable in other community spaces. In the 21st century many spaces we think off as “community” are actually private spaces. Shopping centres are a good example of this limited public space. Young people and the homeless are often thrown out of these spaces because they have no money to spend or their presence is deemed unwelcome for some reason.
The public library mandate, as expressed in our name, gives us the opportunity to serve the entire public rather than only the segment which has recently showered and eaten. And it is these people, overlooked and in some cases reviled who libraries can have the greatest impact on because their need is the greatest. That doesn’t simply mean free wifi and public washroom. Libraries can then use their reference services to direct patrons with specific needs to a place they can get clean or maybe a needle exchange… Or just a bottle of pasta sauce and some spaghetti.