A group of children gather around a table to watch a cooking demonstration by two masked adults at Berkeley's Central Library.
Children gather around a table to watch a cooking demonstration led by library staff members Sierra Gribble and Ashlyn Adams on June 15, 2023. Credit: Elaine Tai

Kids can get free lunch this summer at Berkeley’s Central Library through a partnership with the Berkeley Unified School District.

The meals are being distributed in the downtown library’s third-floor community meeting room between noon and 2 p.m. every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday through Aug. 10 (except for July 4). 

The program is meant to bridge the gap for families that usually can depend on school lunches. Anyone 18 and under can get a meal, but children under 8 are asked to be accompanied by a caregiver in accordance with the library’s unattended children policy. The program is not restricted to BUSD students or Berkeley residents. 

It’s the first time the library has had a free lunch program, and Central Library was selected for the pilot run as it has the most staff and resources, Mayer said.

Berkeley kids can also receive free lunches during the summer at some BUSD schools and community centers.

So far, the library’s program has proven popular — an average of 50 kids have attended each lunch. Mayer hopes to eventually expand the program to other library branches. 

“We know that food insecurity continues to be a concern for many families in Berkeley and summer time can exacerbate this issue, because kids and caregivers can’t count on the regularity of meals provided in school during the school year,” said Tess Mayer, Director of Library Services, in a press release. “Being part of this important community program is just another way to welcome families and youth into our libraries.”

The lunches will be accompanied with special activities, including arts and craft sessions held by the Museum of Children’s Art at 1 to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and cooking demonstrations at 12:30 p.m. on Thursdays. Other activities include board games, LEGO free-play, story time and creative writing. 

The free lunches are prepared by BUSD, which receives a reimbursement of around $4 per lunch from the federal National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. The food pouches for infants and snacks for caretakers are funded by a “small amount” of donations from Friends of the Berkeley Public Library. 

Other funding for the “Lunch at the Library” program comes from a $30,000 grant from the California State Library, which covers staff wages, supplies and other contracted services, including performers and presenters, Mayer said.

You can preview menus on the library’s event calendar. Previous meals — the program started June 6 — have included hot dogs, mac-and-cheese, and chicken caesar and veggie wraps.

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...