A free lunch: It’s something many people would appreciate even if they had no trouble paying for it. It’s also something the Hoover City Schools Child Nutrition Program is now able to offer during the summer, when children are out of school and families might face challenges in affording enough food for everyone at home.

“This is the first time that Hoover has ever participated in the summer feeding program,” CNP Director Melinda Bonner says. “I’m sure we’ll continue doing this every summer.”

Schools at which 50 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price meals during the school year are allowed to participate in the summer feeding program. None of Hoover’s schools fall into this category, but there are still pockets of food insecurity, Melinda says.

The school system found another way to gain access to the program: by agreeing to be a sponsor and serving summer meals in an area where there’s a higher concentration of students that would qualify for free or reduced-price lunches during the regular school year. The Hoover Public Library is in the middle of the city’s area of eligibility. When Melinda and her team approached the library staff about a partnership that would allow HCS to serve summer lunches at the library, they received a resounding “yes” in response.

“We didn’t have to convince them,” CNP Assistant Director Tricia Neura says. “I can’t rave enough about the partnership with them. There is such a team mechanism here.”

And children’s librarian Jeremy Davis, who has spearheaded the library’s involvement, calls it a “natural partnership” that has benefited both entities and the community they serve.

“We’ve already got a dedicated crowd,” Jeremy says of the families and local groups who pack the library’s summer programs. The free lunches for children and teens are just another layer of a productive setup. “People love it. People are appreciative.”

Each weekday in June and July, a colorful bus emblazoned with “Meals in Motion” parked in the library’s upper parking lot at 11:30 a.m. For the next hour, CNP workers handed out individually bagged lunches to children who came to their table outside and in the downstairs area of the library, where they could pick up a lunch as soon as they exited a program in the theatre. Like lunches served in school cafeterias, the summer lunches met nutritional standards and featured a variety of hot and cold offerings, from pizza wedges to chicken sandwiches to veggie-and-dip combos. The paper bags included educational activities for kids. And they were free for everyone 18 years old and younger, even if they weren’t Hoover residents or students at any of the city’s schools.

“The goal is to reach the students that may have food insecurities in Hoover, but we want to provide this for any child,” Melinda says. “We’ve had kids come by here after VBS and grab a lunch. Moms have come up crying, saying, ‘This is such a blessing. Without this, I really didn’t know how I was going to have enough food to feed my kids this summer.’ We’re making sure they’re getting fed.”

The only requirements were that recipients ate their lunches before they left the library campus, and that an indoor area was designated as a rainy-day eating area. Library staff set up tents and blankets for anyone who wanted to eat picnic-style outside. People were allowed to eat inside the building every day, regardless of the weather.

“We’ve developed a really good system, and only through support of the library has it been so successful,” Melinda says. “It’s bringing people to the library, and it also gave us a captive audience (of people) coming to the library anyway. The library has been so great to us.”

The Hoover City Schools Child Nutrition Program is federally funded under the National School Lunch Program, which allows schools to provide free or low-cost lunches to students who qualify. “The Child Nutrition Program is a non-profit, self-sustaining program for the school system,” she says, adding the program is monitored and regulated by the USDA. “Funding is assisted by the USDA all throughout the year. That’s how we operate.”

As such, the school system’s summer meals are also funded by the USDA through the Alabama Summer Food Service Program, “Break for a Plate.” Reimbursement is provided to programs that meet the nutritional requirements and serve free, healthy meals to kids and teens during the summer.

Donations from local nonprofit Hoover Helps and Aho Architects covered the cost of retrofitting a retired school bus to serve as a lunch transport vehicle for Meals in Motion.

“The school system in essence let us use it because it’s not in the fleet anymore,” Melinda says. “Because we knew we would be going out into the community, we needed some type of vehicle to deliver these meals. It’s been a great way to get the word out.”

In addition to the eye-catching bus, the library displayed signs about Meals in Motion to let people know when and where the lunches were available. The daily menus and allergy information were also posted at the library. And parents can rest assured the program meets all food safety and sanitation guidelines.

“We’ve been inspected by the health department,” Melinda says, for sanitation and food safety practices. The Alabama State Department sent operational auditors as well. “They told us at the end of the inspection, ‘Do not change a thing.’”

In mid-July, Melinda projected her team would have served close to 10,000 lunches by the end of the eight-week program.

City officials on various days have joined the library in supporting Meals in Motion. Mayor Frank Brocato and several Hoover police officers visited with children as they ate their lunches. Melinda and her team are expecting the program to grow in the numbers of lunches distributed and distribution sites in the coming years.

Anyone interested in volunteering with the program next summer may contact Melinda Bonner at mbonner@hoover.k12.al.us. For more information about the Hoover City Schools Child Nutrition Program, visit hoovercityschools.net/domain/22.