Partnerships in a Pandemic: Food Banks and the Gwinnett County Public Library

It can be hard to reach new segments of your community with the library doors closed. How can your library use the community partnerships you already have to reach patrons during the pandemic? What new community relationships can help you promote library offerings during this difficult time?

For the Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Library (GCPL), one of the answers has been food banks.

Person passing boxes of food off a truck
Gwinnett County Public Library found a strong pandemic partner in local food banks.

STEM program pivot

The GCPL system has 15 branches and serves the second most populous county in Georgia. In 2017, the library received a NASA@ My Library grant from the National Center for Interactive Learning (NCIL) at the Space Science Institute (SSI) in partnership with the American Library Association (ALA) Public Programs Office, the Pacific Science Center, Cornerstones of Science, and the Education Development Center. The grant supported STEM programming in 75 public libraries nationwide.

GCPL had planned a lineup of in-person programs and interactive presentations for the summer months, but when COVID-19 closed the branches and canceled in-person programs, the team pivoted, instead offering take-and-make bags and online livestreams.

Each of the three take-and-make bags, one per summer month, correlated with a different space theme: The Milky Way (June), Constellations (July) and The Solar System (August). Each bag came with a book based on reading level (elementary school, middle school, high school/adult), an activity list, supplies for the activities, and stickers of the planets and the NASA logo. Read more about the bag contents.

Collaborating with food banks

Two local food banks, CarePointe Community Outreach and the Lawrenceville Co-Op, helped distribute the library’s take-and-make bags.

“The bag pickup had a slow start, so we reached out to our local food pantry connections to get them to assist with bag distribution,” says Adam Pitts, branch manager of the Lawrenceville Branch. “Sending the bags out in the community through our partnerships also helps us to interact with people we would not have otherwise.”

Why food banks? As many Americans reel from pandemic-related job losses and furloughs, these food-providing institutions have stepped up to meet growing needs across the country; according to nonprofit Feeding America, food banks have seen a 20 percent increase in distribution since March 2020. The food banks’ deep ties to their most pressing community needs made them an ideal partner.

Like several GCPL branches, CarePointe Community Outreach and the Lawrenceville Co-Op hosted drive-through food distributions throughout the summer. Both locations gave away 50 or more activity bags each during food distribution.

A longtime partnership

When GCPL reached out to the food banks for help, they already had an existing relationship. Before the pandemic, CarePointe and the Co-Op were two of the library’s regular outreach spots. Using an embedded librarian approach, the library meets with food pantry clients regularly.

“The library is constantly looking for ways to serve our community, and we are blessed to be in partnership with them,” says Tom Balog, executive director of Lawrenceville Co-Op. “They have provided food from their garden, donated books for our clients, and have helped clients with job resources.”

“We have representatives from the Gwinnett County Public Library coming to CarePointe to make our clients aware of all the free services and activities offered at the library. We also had one rep coming to read books to the children who were in our waiting area,” says Mona Hoffman, food pantry coordinator at CarePointe Community Outreach. “The children were so excited to receive the take-and-make bags! During this time of sheltering-in and online classes, parents were also happy for the children to have a new activity.”

GCPL has also partnered with Gwinnett County Parks & Recreation to assist with the Summer Meals Program, a drive-through food distribution offered throughout the county. Volunteers and library staff from four branches helped distribute the meals at lunchtime on Mondays through Fridays. The Norcross and Dacula branches hold drive-through food pantries in partnership with the Atlanta Community Food Bank. These food distributions provide packages with up to 20 pounds of produce in addition to shelf-stable items. The Buford and Centerville branches of the library regularly host Lettum Eat! Inc. drive-through food distributions as well.

The take-and-make bags were designed around the NASA@ My Library Patron Experience Pilot (PEP) project. This PEP project is intended to develop community members’ interest in science by offering individuals varying ways to engage in science so that they can choose to learn about science in a way that is appropriate for their current level of interest. The monthly PEP Take-and-Make bags had a focused theme on space science and specifically on celestial stories in collaboration with the summer CSLP Universe of Stories theme. These bags contained activities, information, and sometimes a book around a similar theme (e.g., the milky way galaxy), so that patrons could explore the theme and choose to learn more if they so desired. STEM kits were also available thanks to the donation of Home Depot.

Partnerships help libraries to get to know the community and those involved with organizations such as social service providers. “In my experience,” says Adam Pitts, “most community partners are more than willing to work with you if you put in the effort to make it beneficial to both parties.”