Lemotu Evaimalo comes to the East Palo Alto Library with her three young children almost every day she has off from work. They play on the computers or spend time together as a family (this week enjoying the air-conditioned respite from the muggy heat outside).
But this summer, the library has taken on a new purpose for her and other families: It now doubles as a place where East Palo Alto families who might be struggling to put food on the table can get a free, healthy lunch.
Evaimalo said the summer isn't particularly difficult for her family, food-wise, but she knows many parents who depend on their children's schools to provide most meals during the school year. Ninety-three percent of the 4,200 students in the Ravenswood City School District are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, and one in three children in Silicon Valley faces hunger throughout the year, according to local nonprofit Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
Coupled with the ever-rising rent and cost of living in East Palo Alto, having enough food to eat during the summer becomes increasingly difficult for many families.
"During the summer, the kids are out of school and the routine is totally different," said East Palo Alto City Councilwoman Donna Rutherford in an interview at the library. "Parents are still going to work every day, and some of the children are being taken care of by their older siblings. I don't know what type of meals they have in the home, but I do know that a lot of parents are struggling, working two and three jobs and just barely paying their rent and putting food on the table."
There are numerous sites in East Palo Alto where families in need can drop in for hot meals or can pick up groceries, including churches, schools, the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club. The library is new territory, and community organizations working to combat hunger among East Palo Alto youth are hoping that its draw as a safe, welcoming public space might destigmatize the need to seek out food and, as a result, bring in more families.
Lisa Chamberlain, a Stanford Children's Health/Lucile Packard Children's Hospital pediatrician who also works at the Ravenswood Family Health Center in East Palo Alto, launched the summer food program with the Ravenswood City School District in 2012. She said she had noted a dramatic spike in 2011 in the number of her patients who lacked money for food and rent by the end of the month -- from 10 percent to more than 50 percent.
The five-week summer food program started at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in 2012, and then was added two years later at Belle Haven School in Menlo Park. In the first year, the program distributed 13,100 meals. Families reported liking the convenience of the school location and going to a program that didn't require any documentation.
In 2013, Packard partnered with the YMCA, which secured federal funding through the Summer Food Service Program to pay for unlimited children's meals. Packard kicked in dollars to pay for adult meals so entire families could come in together to eat, rather than just the children.
The joint work of Lucile Packard, the YMCA and the Ravenswood City School District was the start of what would become the East Palo Alto Food Children's Security Collaborative, a public-private partnership that now also includes Second Harvest Food Bank and the San Mateo public library system. The summer programs at Cesar Chavez and Belle Haven continue, with federal dollars paying for the kids' meals and Second Harvest now paying for the adult meals.
Last year, about 270 to 370 children were served each day for five weeks, totaling more than 14,000 child and adult meals. More than 2,500 take-home meals were also distributed. The percentage of families at risk for food insecurity and/or hunger went down from 36 percent to 22 percent, the Lucile Packard group found.
"There is so much demand, and my families are still telling me, especially recently, that rents are going through the roof," Chamberlain said. "My families are having to spend so much more on rent that they don't have any more for food. I'm seeing those rates of ... food insecurity and hunger going up again. The more we can support them with these resources, then they have more capacity to cope with how rents are going up."
In an interview with the Weekly this spring, Ravenswood Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff said that it's become "very evident that hunger and food shortage is a real concern in our community, and (it's) made worse due to the higher cost of living over the last couple of years."
Parents will frequently call their children's schools and ask, "If it's a minimum day, does that mean they get lunch?" Hernandez-Goff said.
A lack of awareness or misinformation about available resources in the community is another issue the collaborative hopes to tackle. Evaimalo didn't know about the summer lunch program until this week, despite the fact she and her kids spend a lot of time at the library. Members of the food-security group recently collaborated to develop a detailed food resource guide for East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, which is printed in both English and Spanish. Second Harvest encourages anyone who is struggling to find food to call its multilingual hotline at 800-984-3663 to learn about food options, including both local and federal options.
The new summer program is not the first time the library has served as a food center. Last year, it became clear to Lucile Packard staff that families also found winter break stressful, with children home from school, heating bills higher and parents who work construction jobs sometimes out of work due to bad weather, Chamberlain said.
The school district didn't have the capacity to run a program during winter break, so the library volunteered to house the pilot program. It distributed more than 600 meals in six days, Chamberlain said.
The more these efforts continue in familiar public spaces, the less stigma there will be around seeking food assistance, food-collaborative staff members hope.
"It becomes 'This is part of what our community does,'" Chamberlain said.
Connecting community organizations with pediatricians, who often recognize the signs of food insecurity in their patients but might feel limited in their ability to help, is another strategy for closing the gap.
"Pediatrician screening needs to be linked to appropriate community resources to ensure that families are able to get the resources and support they need outside of the pediatrician's office," said Janine Bruce, director of the Stanford School of Medicine's Pediatric Advocacy Program.
One East Palo Alto mother who also regularly frequents the library was having lunch with her 7-year-old daughter, Jenesis, on Monday afternoon. Jenesis played a Barbie dress-up game on a computer while her mother, Vanesha, watched, their sandwiches sitting on the table next to them.
Vanesha said she doesn't have too much difficulty finding food, but she appreciates the community feel of the library. She knows about the program at Cesar Chavez, but her daughter doesn't go to school there, so it's less familiar. They've gone before but just grabbed food and left.
"I like the library," Vanesha said. "It's more for everybody."
Across the room, children from a summer camp were snacking at tables in one corner; mothers and fathers were sitting with children at computers and in book areas; and adults on their own found some privacy in between bookcases -- all eating sandwiches and fruit as other traditional library activities took place around them.
Evaimalo, who's lived in East Palo Alto for more than 20 years, said it was the busiest she had ever seen the library.