Feeding mouths and minds at Martha Cooper Library

The Arizona Daily Star Monthly Library Series offers an insider's view of Pima County Public Library and the ways in which we're transforming lives in our community. This month, we hear from Becca Bommersbach, Library Technical Assistant.

I have two questions that I find myself repeating every day during snack time at Martha Cooper Library: “What’s the magic word?” and “Did you wash your hands with soap and water?”

These days, before I can even ask, my regular kids will come up to me with with still-wet hands and say “Yeees Ms. Becca, I washed my hands! May I please have a snack?” They also know the other magic words, “Thank you!” Even if a child is nonverbal or too shy to say those magic words out loud, I’m happy to teach them how to say please and thank you in sign language.

Technically I’m only required to make sure they wash their hands, but myself and other staff members at the Martha Cooper Library like to encourage kids to use their best manners.

According to the hunger relief organization Feeding America, 24.8 percent of children in Pima County suffer from food insecurity, or the inability to reliably access or afford healthy food. Not having enough nutritious food is linked to a range of physical and developmental delays and can negatively impact school performance.

Through a partnership with the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Pima County Public Library implemented the afterschool snack program. Snack Time provides youth ages 0-18 with a reliable source of healthy food to fill the gap between school lunch and dinnertime. It started small in 2013 at Santa Rosa Library, but has since expanded and is now offered at several library locations across Pima County.

Since its introduction at Martha Cooper Library in early 2016, we have had over 650 children sign up at our library alone. Many of our young patrons hang out at the library for hours after school with plenty of homework, but nothing to eat. As word of the snack program spread and it began to gain traction, we started to notice some tangible results: more kids were attending our Homework Help and ReadStrong programs and there was a considerable decrease in behavioral issues at the library. Children get “hangry” too, but with a snack to hold them over they are more likely to be respectful, focused, and productive.

With Snack Time in place our young customers are able to get along, play games, teach, and learn from one another whether they are attending Game Lounge, Instant Recess, or any of our other after school programming.

Occasionally, kids volunteer to help me pass out the snacks. Some are good at filling out paperwork to track attendance and others, like 4-year old Elijah, excel at customer service. “You-wash-hands-soap-water?” he’ll chatter while offering a bag of Chex Mix and an apple to the next person in line. Yes, Elijah needs redirection sometimes, he is the youngest “volunteer” the library’s ever had after all, but when he helps me serve snack it’s both a reminder of how much he’s grown up in the two years I’ve known him and a demonstration of the positive impact the program has had on our community.

In the same room where we offer Snack Time we host Game Lounge, which provides a low-pressure environment where kids and teens ages 8-18 can relax and socialize after school. This has been a great opportunity to recruit teen volunteers. In fact, a couple of our regular attendees now help us facilitate Game Lounge while snack is being passed out, all while building relationships with each other and with the younger kids that come to hang out, too.

After school we have many hungry kids at the library, but over the summer our numbers are even higher. In our midtown neighborhood, 89% of families qualify for free and reduced lunch. Summer poses additional challenges as these families can’t rely on school lunches to help make ends meet.

So this summer when the Food Bank approached us about hosting a Summer Breakfast program, we jumped at the opportunity. In addition to receiving afternoon snacks three days per week, kids were invited to stop by weekday mornings to pick up things like breakfast bars, trail mix, and fruit. Every Friday they would get to take home a bag of food for the weekend, which included a couple items such as a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter, or a package of tortillas and a can of beans.

Both Snack Time and Summer Breakfast have had an impact that goes well beyond the library. It’s been amazing to promote these hunger relief efforts and witness the effects! With our help, food is finding its way into homes and bellies in our community.

I’ve worked for Pima County Public Library for 11 years, the last three at Martha Cooper Library. My passion for my job didn’t start with Snack Time, but with Children’s Services including Storytime, crafts, and promoting the library’s literacy efforts. In addition to that, supporting the Snack Time program has truly become a labor of love—one that I value greatly.

I’m proud to be a part of the transforming role of libraries. They are no longer the shushed vaults of the past, but vibrant community learning centers–living, breathing, thriving organisms. Folks of all ages use the library to access technology that they do not have at home, to learn new skills, to have a venue for their creativity, and to be builders of community. Feeding hungry kids is a natural extension of these services, of our mission, and our values and it demonstrates the Library’s commitment to nurturing and empowering everyone we serve.

  • Do you know a child who lacks reliable access to nutritious food? Visit the Library’s website for a full list of upcoming Snack Time offerings.
  • Interested in learning more about food insecurity in our community? Visit Feeding America’s website to get the facts about hunger in Arizona.

When asked how she ended up in library service, Becca Bommersbach says, “There has always been some kind of magnetic pull.” Becca’s love of libraries started young when attending Himmel Park Library’s Storytime with her grandmother, and as soon as she could she was performing music at Storytime for the next generation! In her spare time, she plays the ukulele and viola and is a member of the Catalina Foothills Philharmonic Orchestra.