Gather 2 Grow expands to Muskegon and Allegan libraries

Libraries have always been about more than books. This summer, the Fruitport District Library is one of several West Michigan libraries providing meals to children in need. 

The meals are more important than ever. Muskegon County has nearly 25,000 food-insecure residents, almost 15% of its population, according to 2019 data. Roughly 75% of those were under the 200% poverty threshold to qualify for SNAP.

"During the summer, kids have an even harder time accessing food as they have lost their access to school meals," says Matt Lubbers-Moore, the library's director. "Since serving lunches over the last few weeks, we have seen a lot of need. Grandparents bring their kids by so that they can grab lunch, a book, and play in the park."

Meeting a community need

As parents and grandparents bring youngsters for nutritious meals, they are signing them up for the Summer Reading Program. Even tweens and teens ride their bikes to the library to grab lunch as a way to get out of the house – but to also eat. 

"Early on I was asked if these meals could only be served to Fruitport residents,” Lubbers-Moore says. “I told them that I would never turn away a hungry child. We've had residents from neighboring areas stop by knowing they could get a free lunch for their kids and grandkids. I am very happy to be able to provide nutritious lunches to those in need."

Because the lunch program is going so well, the library this month is adding one day a week in Cloverville in connection with the Fruitport Schools bookmobile. 

The lunches are provided through Feeding America West Michigan's new Gather 2 Grow program, an expansion of Library Lunches to Go, which ran last year.

Library Lunches to Go ran at 15 Kent District Library branches and its bookmobile last year. This year, Gather 2 Grow is running in Allegan, Ionia, Muskegon and Newaygo counties as well. It serves nutritious meals at no cost to youths 18 and under and disabled adults up to age 26. Vegetarian and nut-free meal options are available.  

"We projected to serve approximately 15,000 total meals through the program this summer, but that estimation was formed before food and gas prices rose. We're seeing extremely high attendance figures so far; we now expect to serve approximately 25,000 meals, exceeding the projection by about two-thirds," says Molly Kooi, Feeding West Michigan's Communication and Marketing Manager.

Plans to expand

In 2021, 50% of Michigan kids qualified for free and reduced-price lunches during the school year, but only 15% accessed summer meals through the state’s Meet Up & Eat Up program. 

Gather 2 Grow aims to make summer meals easier to access by increasing options. 

“Kids need food in order to learn, grow, and have fun in the summer,” says Shay Kovacs, Feeding West Michigan’s programs manager. “Gather 2 Grow will take the burden off parents so they don’t have to worry how they’ll feed their kids when school is out.”

The food bank aims to expand the program to other parts of its 40-county service area in future years and plans to provide educational resources as well. This expansion is one goal of its recently announced Nourish Tomorrow campaign. 

"We believe libraries are an excellent place to offer this service because they are a familiar, friendly space—which helps reduce stigma around accessing charitable food—and because the program aims to nourish bodies and minds in the coming years. In addition, many libraries are located in residential areas of a community, making them ideal for older children—who may be old enough to be home alone during the day, but not old enough to drive—to access services on their own," says Kooi. 

The program has expanded to libraries in four counties:
Allegan County 

Fennville District Library, 400 W Main St. Fennville
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 12 – 1 p.m.

Henika District Library, 149 S. Main St., Wayland
Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12 – 1 p.m. 

Ionia County 

Lake Odessa Community Library, 1007 4th Ave., Lake Odessa
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. 

Muskegon County 

Fruitport District Library, 47 Park St, Fruitport
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 12 – 1 p.m.  

Newaygo County 

White Cloud Community Library, 1038 E. Wilcox Ave., White Cloud
Tuesdays and Fridays from 12 – 1 p.m.  
Grant Area District Library, 122 S. Elder Ave., Grant
Every week day from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.