Mighty Fine: How Overdue Library Books Are Putting Food on the Table

The growing trend of Food for Fines programs at libraries across the country is another sign that a strong SNAP program is vital.

Food for Fines Program Helps Aid Food Insecurity
Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

Residents of Jefferson County, Mo., who are a bit late in returning their library books might want to hold on to those items for a few weeks longer—until Jan. 31, to be precise. Paying a late fine on that day could help feed a neighbor struggling with food insecurity. On monthly Food for Fines amnesty days, the county’s three library branches, including the one in the town of Arnold, invite those with overdue materials or outstanding fines to pay their debt in the form of nonperishable canned food items that are donated to local food pantries.

“We’re having more people come to see us because of the economy,” says Kathy Flanigan, executive director of the Arnold Food Pantry, which receives donations each month from the town's public library. “We’re seeing a lot of first-timers because their food stamps have been cut. Now that their food stamps got cut, they need to figure out how to supplement it.”

Flanigan's grateful for the library program because while she never lets the pantry’s shelves get completely empty, she often has to make special appeals to churches and schools for additional donations or buys food for the pantry herself to help serve the 130 families she sees weekly—a number that’s growing.

By most accounts, forgetful, altruistic library patrons are providing a decent amount through the program. Jefferson County Library donated 7,672 cans of food in 2013—an increase of 12.4 percent over the amount donated in 2012. In the nine years that the library has been offering the Food for Fines amnesty, library patrons have "paid" a total of 57,613 cans of food to local food pantries. 

Similar programs exist in Bellows Falls, Vt.; Nashville, Tenn.; Paragould, Ark.; and other communities across the nation, many of which have been coping with unusually empty shelves for the last year or so. The sparse stock could not have come at a worse time for America’s hungry. In November, food-insecure Americans were hit with $5 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—a lifeline for the more than 47 million who struggle with hunger. Deeper cuts to the federal food safety net program—potentially as deep as $9 billion—will hit SNAP once lawmakers from the House and Senate agree on just how much to slash from the budget.

November’s cuts are sending more hungry Americans to food pantries for assistance, a burden that is overwhelming many antihunger organizations. The pantries need all the help they can get, in other words, and the success of Food for Fines programs has some asking why libraries don't offer amnesty days year-round, like the monthly schedule practiced in Jefferson County.

What’s more, in many communities, late fines aren’t used to support the libraries themselves but are instead funneled into the local government’s general fund. So offering the option to trade monetary fines for food donations wouldn’t, in most cases, affect the already underfunded budgets of many libraries.

Yet at the end of the day, it’s clear that cans cobbled together at libraries, however helpful they are to those who need a little extra, won't adequately meet the needs of families struggling with food insecurity.

But while strengthening the food safety net is clearly a major part of the cure for America’s hunger problem, Congress seems satisfied to let the lion’s share of the burden fall on under-resourced food pantries like Flanigan’s. That's why she says the Arnold Food Pantry must remain strong no matter where the donations are coming from, because “these people count on us.”

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