Lately, there’s a lot of attention being given to bailouts for banks and rescue for big corporate automakers, but there’s a more enduring sort of stimulus package that has my enduring respect. Each summer my neighborhood library, the Northside Library here in Columbus, launches a joint summer reading club and free lunch program for kids up to age 17. Monday through Saturday, the library is open all day, featuring presentations, arts projects, animals, magic shows, crossword creation groups, drum circles, writers’ workshops and more, more, more.
The goal is to get kids coming into the library during the summer, and from what I can see that goal is met: every time I pop in, there are kids all over the place, not only during the programs but at other times too, doing what kids do in libraries, which is to read. When school’s out for summer, kids who don’t read fall behind kids who do, exacerbating social inequalities and frustrating educational efforts. Reading clubs like these effectively promote gains in literacy for kids from low-income families where reading at home tends not to occur.
Because our neighborhood has a high concentration of kids from poor families, the library also offers free lunches to the kids who come in to the library each day. This effort, funded in part by in the long-standing Summer Food Service Program of the USDA, has been an annual effort for about forty years now, acting to fill in the nutritional gap of children who, now that school’s out, don’t have the nutritional supplement provided by school lunch. This year especially, there are a lot of parents out there who have trouble feeding their kids on their own, and the Summer Food Service Program fills that gap. I anticipate some negative reaction by people who ask why they should have to spend money to feed other people’s kids. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but it’s an observable fact that these supplemental food programs for kids lead to better educational outcomes, and better educational outcomes are associated with lower crime rates, better employment histories and higher productivity. Even if you don’t particularly care about being nice to children, these are considerable social benefits that result from a relatively low amount of social expenditure.
It’s the combination of the summer reading club and the lunch program that really impresses me. Kids come in for lunch and get exposed to reading, or kids come in to the library for the reading club and learn about the free lunch option. Together, these efforts promote children’s physical and intellectual health while integrating them in the neighborhood community.