Every weekday during the summer, Evelyn Alexander, 39, of Bay Shore, takes her three children to Brentwood Public Library for a free lunch.
On Thursday, Nia, 5, and Ani, 3, ate ham and cheese wraps, oranges and applesauce in a multipurpose room just inside the library’s main entrance. Their brother, Sena, 1, roamed the room and played with other children.
They were there to take part in the Summer Food Service Program, which — created and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — offers free breakfast, lunch and snacks to kids and teens while they’re away from school, with the goal of reducing food insecurity.
According state data, approximately 100,000 children on Long Island rely on their schools’ free and reduced lunch program during the school year. But when the final bell of the school year rings, their next meal source can become uncertain.
While some kids find food at summer or day camps, not all have access. So open distribution centers, like the one at Brentwood library, offer food to any person younger than 18 who walks through the door.
Brentwood Public Library partnered with Island Harvest, a Long Island food bank, three years ago to distribute meals through the Summer Food Service Program.
“It allows us to expand the program and get to kids that wouldn’t normally be getting food,” said Randi Shubin Dresner, Island Harvest president and chief executive.
Anywhere from 60 to 120 kids eat lunch at Brentwood library when meals are offered, from noon to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday during the summer.
Island Harvest has 70 distribution centers on Long Island that serve breakfast, lunch and snacks. About half are open to the public, and others operate within camps or summer enrichment programs.
Dresner said she expects to serve close to 200,000 meals and snacks to kids across Long Island by the end of the summer.
“When kids are on this program and go back to school in September, they’re going back differently,” Dresner said. “They’re feeling better, they’re able to engage in class. So, this is a really vital program for kids that are living in vulnerable communities.”
And there are benefits to distributing food at community gathering places such as a library.
“It helps me because I don’t have to prepare lunch for them,” said the mother, Evelyn Alexander. “Also, this library has a lot of activities so we can spend the whole day here.”
Nia, Alexander’s 5-year-old daughter, said her favorite part of going to the library for lunch is seeing her friends. Together, they play with toys in the children’s section, watch movies and read.
“They come in here and they enjoy, not only the food, but they also use the library throughout the day,” said Brentwood Public Library director Thomas Tarantowicz.
He said that before the library began hosting the program, 25 to 30 children would visit the library each day. With free, nutritious food available, as many as 100 kids now come to Brentwood Public Library every day.
This summer, Stop & Shop has donated $10,000 worth of meals to Island Harvest for the program.
“Island Harvest can continue to feed students in other ways, and we can really help with the lunches, specifically,” said Stefanie Shuman, Stop & Shop’s external communications manager.
She said Stop & Shop wanted to help offset the cost of the program. The supermarket chain also sources, packages and delivers the meals for Island Harvest.
Nutrition standards are set by the USDA, and Island Harvest works with its vendors and dietitians to create menus that meet the guidelines.
In addition to Island Harvest, Long Island Cares food bank and several school districts distribute meals through the Summer Food Service Program.
The nearest distribution center can be found by entering a ZIP code at fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks.