Authored by Brian Hocevar, Assistant Manager, Northside Branch, Lexington Public Library
While it surely takes at least a spark of idealism to work in public libraries, it would be safe to say that optimism was in short supply in the autumn months of 2020. After several months of COVID-19 closure, the Lexington Public Library’s Northside Branch had been reopened in July. For the first few months, the mood had been heavy with customers facing dire circumstances at every turn. Unemployment. Loss of housing. The situation at the Northside Branch was the same one faced by every urban library in the country. The litany of difficulties faced by the public and the scramble to find appropriate solutions and services was daunting, and day-to-day services seemed to be more about survival than silver linings.
It was in that frantic November that the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program brought its first shipment to central Kentucky. In Lexington, this federal program was delivered to the public through the assistance of God’s Pantry Food Bank, an organization which serves over 50 counties in central and eastern Kentucky and facilitates more than 475 food pantries and meal programs in that area. LPL had been working with God’s Pantry for several years to offer an after school snack program at two different branches, so the lines of communication were well established. It was decided that the Northside Branch would be the ideal spot for the distribution of USDA food boxes. After two rounds of successful food box distribution, the conversation turned toward a food distribution method that would be more permanent. The north end of Lexington is a food desert, and God’s Pantry CEO Michael Halligan had been scouting the north side for a suitable site for a new pantry even before the outbreak of the pandemic. As it happened, the relocation of Northside’s Teen Room left a room open next to the Computer Lab. Northside manager Jenny Smith took the question of repurposing the room to LPL’s Executive Director, Heather Dieffenbach, who was excited to try something innovative with the space. This was the genesis of the God’s Pantry Food Bank’s Northside Pantry.
God’s Pantry leadership planned from the get-go for this new facility to be unlike any other food pantry in Central Kentucky. Other pantries require referrals from social service providers, with income limitations and scheduled appointments to receive food boxes. At Northside, there would be no referrals and no income limitations. Customers could seek pantry services at their own discretion, and they would be received on a walk-in basis. Moreover, God’s Pantry leadership sought to create an experience that would feel like a trip to the grocery store, a site where customers could browse for groceries and make choices that were appropriate for their own households. To this end, they installed freezers, produce bins, and one long two-sided shelving unit, all of which come together to give the impression of a tiny grocery store tucked away in the corner of a busy public library. In the first week of June, hand in hand with the launch of Summer Reading, Northside launched its food pantry.
The Northside Pantry operates Monday through Friday from noon to 2:00, but the line begins to form even before the library is open. They serve forty households a day, and while the internal operations of the pantry are handled by their crew of dedicated volunteers, the addition of a whole new customer base seeking a new service gives rise to a new set of challenges for the library staff. From the time the doors open, customers need to be directed through the sign-in process. Questions come hot and heavy. Yes, you will get to shop today. No, they won’t turn you away without a driver’s license. Maybe they will have baby formula today—restocking is done daily, so we’ll have to wait and see. While making the library a welcoming space for all customers is a baseline responsibility of every library employee, the balance that needs to be struck between hosting the pantry customers while also serving folks in the computer lab and the Digital Studio and still taking care of circulation tasks turns the difficulty up at least one or two notches. Things are louder and certainly more hectic around the Northside Branch these days, and even with the pantry, the library show must go on.
But in addition to serving as a host for the pantry, Northside staff has approached the influx of new customers—many of whom previously weren’t using library services—as an opportunity to highlight other services. For instance, Northside had begun to host a drop-in resumé help program several months prior to the pantry’s opening. This program dovetails perfectly with the needs of pantry customers. Parents coming in with their children have learned about children’s programs that they might never have heard about otherwise. Computer access. Document printing, scanning and faxing services. Many of our pantry visitors have been living in the nearby Winburn neighborhood for years and had simply passed the library by without a thought because they assumed it didn’t have anything for them. The pantry became a gateway to DVDs, computers and a host of other programs and services aimed beyond readers. Meanwhile, the pantry has opened new lines of communication with other local service providers, allowing LPL to open and strengthen community partnerships.
At the time of this writing, the Northside Food Bank is only a few months old, still well in its infancy, and as such, it still regularly presents new challenges for everyone involved in administering the program. However it was only a year and a half ago that staff went home at the end of every day having only managed to provide whatever services could be offered at curbside. These days, we go home knowing that forty families accessed healthy groceries who might not have done so otherwise. Silver linings don’t always arrive on time, but this one was worth the wait.
God's Pantry Food Bank
Learn how Lexington Public Library's new food bank combats exacerbated food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic head on.
Assistant Manager, Northside Branch, Lexington Public Library
Brian Hocevar is the assistant manager of the Lexington Public Library’s Northside Branch. He has worked in public libraries for eighteen years, and his wife, Naomi, is also a public librarian. He holds an MLIS and an MFA in fiction from the University of Alabama and a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Louisville.