I was recently reading Monogamy by Sue Miller, one of my favorite authors, when I started to think about topics for this column. Over the course of the pandemic I've often caught myself staring at the walls of my apartment in New York City, frustrated at being cooped up in a city celebrated for its crowded, exciting restaurants and public spaces. I’ve been craving big, social meals with friends and family—something that features prominently in Miller's novel. In my home, food is love. And, like many people around the world, I find myself missing the conversations and connections shared around my table over a good meal.
And then I remember how privileged I am to have the option of staying safely at home. I’m thankful for my favorite comfy spot, where I like to sit with a snack or a cup of coffee while I read. I have always been a sucker for that delicious combination of nourishing my body while feeding my heart and mind with a good book. But these days, I find myself thinking more about the surging number of food insecure Americans, and those who are struggling to keep a roof over their families’ heads.
With so many Americans in crisis, I was delighted with President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination of Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (OH-11) for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. When Congresswoman Fudge joins the Biden cabinet she will oversee a vital federal agency responsible for ensuring wider access to quality, affordable housing.
I know firsthand Congresswoman Fudge’s strong track record in building and strengthening healthy communities from my years as executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library. She is an empathetic leader, and a perfect choice for the job.
I first got to know Congresswoman Fudge when she was the mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, one of the 47 communities in the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) system. She wanted CCPL to build a new branch library as an anchor for community development in her city. I was impressed with her deep understanding of how a public library can serve as the center of community life.
When discussions for a new library began in 2004, CCPL did not have the funds to build the building. So Fudge helped to get the city council to agree to provide the land for the library at no cost. By the time the new branch opened, in 2012, Fudge was already serving her second term in Congress. Nonetheless, she joined with nearly 3,000 residents at the grand opening, and celebrated the achievement of opening a library designed for—and with—the community.
Over the years, Congresswoman Fudge has continued to be an inspiration to me, including her service on the House Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Nutrition. She has been a strong supporter of programs that feed people, particularly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And she understands that an equitable and inclusive society begins with ensuring that families have quality, nutritious food.
In the 1920s, Warrensville Heights was the “Geranium Center of the U.S.” But in later years, the city fell on hard times and has struggled as a food desert. So in 2016, CCPL chose to pilot a learning garden at the Warrensville Heights Branch as one of its key summer programs. The garden was envisioned as a green space where children could experience the outdoors and play in a safe environment. And thanks to a grant from the National Center for Families Learning, the Library offered a family engagement program that linked outdoor learning to the role of the family meal. With that program, committed branch staff, including Maria Trivisonno and Beate van der Schalie, planted the seed for CCPL’s system-wide culinary literacy program.
Culinary and nutrition programs are growing in popularity in libraries around the country. Cookbooks, of course, have long been one of the most popular sections of the public library collection. But more and more public libraries across the nation today are launching culinary literacy programs as a basic programming track. Just as libraries support literacy writ large, culinary literacy taps into and connects many important concepts including reading, health, nutrition, and other life skills.
At CCPL, much of the library’s culinary programming has been driven by Ron Block, Middleburg Heights Branch Manager. I have known Ron nearly my entire career, going back to the Onondaga County Public Library in Syracuse, New York. A highlight of that time for me was joining Ron for lunch with author Pat Conroy during his visit for the Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series. I sat starstruck as the two foodies ordered, ate, and shared their plates.
A few years after that memorable meal, I headed to Ohio and Ron made his way to Jacksonville, Florida where he created the “A Book and a Cook” series that ran for three seasons on a local television station. Ron paired novels with recipes inspired by themes from books, and authors joined him to talk and cook. Ron’s talents have come to be recognized by publishers, librarians, authors, and local chefs alike—and in 2018 he became the first librarian to serve on the James Beard Foundation Book Awards committee.
When Ron came to work at CCPL in 2015, his knowledge of books, food, and cooking led to the “A Cook and a Book,” program, a twist on the original Jacksonville program. Vitamix, the family-owned blender company headquartered in Cuyahoga County, opened its local store and demo kitchen to the monthly, standing room only book club sessions. “It was eye-opening to see the community’s enthusiasm and the need for culinary literacy,” he says of his work with food-related programming. “It could be the simplest of cooking programs, but just watching kids try certain flavors and fruits and vegetables for the first time and really loving the experience made it special.”
Ron’s efforts have also enhanced the library’s fundraising efforts. In September of 2020, the Library Foundation hosted a virtual event with Chef Rocco Whalen of Cleveland’s Fahrenheit restaurant. More than 200 guests ordered food kits from the library and cooked along with Chef Rocco—and the event generated $90,000 for youth literacy programs.
Serving our communities
A few years ago, I read Matthew Desmond’s powerful, Pulitzer Prize and Carnegie-Medal winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City for my library’s community read. The author’s words have always stuck with me: “the rent eats first,” he wrote. Indeed, more than a quarter of poor families in America today spend over 70% of their income on housing, Desmond observed in the book, which often leaves little money for other essentials like food much less books and learning supplies.
During the pandemic year of 2020, I’ve thought a lot about confluence of food, home, and community. And it is clear to me that the shared experiences created and nurtured by public libraries will be a critical part of our post-pandemic future. If there is any American institution that connects the threads of literacy, learning, and community welfare, it is the local public library. But without access to healthy food and safe housing—issues I know Congresswoman Fudge is now poised to advance for our nation—no community can fully thrive.
I’m proud of the way so many librarians and public libraries across the country have stepped up their work with local foodbanks and nonprofits to help feed and support their communities in this difficult pandemic year. In 2021, I expect such efforts will continue, and with the need for such programs greater than ever, expand.
PW columnist Sari Feldman is the former executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland and a past president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).