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Feeding Minds And Empty Stomachs Can Give Libraries A Renewed Purpose Because Hunger Doesn't Take A Holiday

14/12/2016 14:23
Roy Mehta via Getty Images

Libraries have a long tradition of transforming lives. They are places of education for everyone, providing hope, inspiration and resiliency. They're also a place of refuge. But in my local library they do a lot more than just feed a healthy appetite for knowledge. They often make the difference between youngsters having a meal or going without.

As a Rochdale councillor, my library is situated in one of the most deprived places in Greater Manchester. A regular user, I often noticed a high number of children using the library during the summer holidays. Some went to read, some to socialise and others because they had nowhere else to go. Many of the latter group never picked up a book and would stay there all day without leaving for lunch.

Through observing these youngsters over a long period of time, I realized there was an opportunity for the library to fill a unique policy need - and promote literacy at the same time as making sure children were guaranteed a healthy meal.

This situation is by no means unique to Rochdale; it's a snapshot of breadline Britain where the zero-hours contract economy means children are often struggling to get enough attention from their parents. Working hours are no longer regular and often in the school holidays children are no longer getting three meals a day. For many, their school lunch is their only substantial meal.

This has not come about because parents are so destitute they are busy queuing at the food bank. It tends to be because there is nobody home to feed them - they are too busy working. I believe families in this type of situation are growing in number and already exist in greater volumes than those who use food banks.

My solution to this problem was to introduce the 'Read and Feed' scheme. Children that went to the library and read for one hour were given a packed lunch. The concept is simple, cheap and was an instant success. The number of children completing the summer reading challenge rose by 500% and scores of lunches were handed out. Many youngsters were introduced to the joy of reading for the first time as a result. Nowhere else in the Borough saw increased numbers on this scale. Children in Smallbridge were learning and getting a healthy meal at the same time.

We thought it may suffer from self selection, envisaging a wave of middle class children sent by their parents who want their children reading would be the only beneficiaries. This didn't happen. The scheme genuinely reached out across communities, attracting many people who'd never been to the library before.

The Leader of Rochdale Council has subsequently promised me this scheme will be rolled out to five libraries in the Borough trying to reach communities with the highest levels of need.

However, I don't want to stop there. I'm hopeful that the next mayor of Greater Manchester will encourage all Boroughs across Greater Manchester to have food available in libraries introducing children to books by the next summer holidays. I need to raise as much awareness as possible to get this on their radar.

In other countries like the U.S, schemes like this are far more commonplace - and libraries are seen as community problem solvers. That view has yet to translate properly to the UK and, at a time when their very existence is threatened, libraries desperately need to break out of a traditional strait jacket and assume a much bigger role.

That way, libraries will not only begin to remove barriers to attendance and reach new audiences, but go beyond building collections and services to reach their real potential, which has always been in building communities.

Councillor John Blundell is a Labour councillor for Smallbridge and Firgrove in Rochdale and is Chairman of the Pennines Township

You can contact me about the scheme on @johnblundell993

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