Norwich - An avid reader, 10-year-old Neila Sylvete was already a fan of the Otis Library when she found a new reason to spend time there this summer.
"I can't believe they're letting people eat here. They always say don't eat at the library," Neila said Monday as she finished a lunch of a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, carrots, a cheese stick and milk. "It's cool."
Sylvete had come to the library with her aunt, Memimose Melise, at about 10 that morning to use one of the computers to tally the books she'd read for a summer reading challenge, then pick out some more books to take home. Just before noon, she joined 25 other children around tables in a corner of the Children's Department, next to a shelf labeled "Folk and Fairy Tale Books," for boxed lunches served out of cooler bags from a wheeled cart by Nelly Darragh, manager of the summer lunch site at the library.
Since starting on July 1, Darragh said, the library site has been attracting 24 to 30 children daily, many of whom come with their parents in the morning for summer reading and crafts activities at the library. Other parents work on library computers while their children fill up on sandwiches, yogurt and cinnamon whole-grain Goldfish crackers.
Bob Farwell, executive director of the library, said the meals program "fit in nicely" with other summer activities that serve the same patrons, even if it meant moving a few shelves and tables and lifting the traditional ban on food.
"It's nice they have this to draw more people to the library," said Jailyn Clay, who came with her husband, Lamar, and their three children for morning activities, then stayed for lunch. While their children enjoyed the boxed lunches, Jailyn and Lamar ate ham sandwiches they'd brought from home.
"Especially for people with big families, this really helps save money," she said.
The library site is new this year for the summer meals program, which serves lunch at 32 sites around the city and breakfast at 14. Sites include schools, parks, churches and apartment complexes. The meals are offered free to anyone 18 and under who comes to one of the sites, regardless of income.
"I'm so full," said Anthony Culpepper, 5, as he and his younger brother, Tyler, and parents, Michael and Heather, left carrying the still-wet miniature rowboat Anthony had painted in the morning story-and-crafts time.
Elsewhere in the region, summer meals are offered at more than 20 sites in New London, five in Groton and one in Stonington, some with breakfasts. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered in Connecticut by the state Department of Education, the program fills a need after the school year ends in June and with it, the free breakfast and lunch programs so many families depend on, according to local food service directors.
School districts that run the programs are reimbursed $1.98 per breakfast and $3.47 per lunch, enough to cover the food and labor, Roberta Jacobs, food services director for Norwich, said.
"People are very thankful for this, and that tells me there is a need out there," said Ernie Koschmieder, director of food and nutrition for Groton Public Schools.
This year, he said, around 15 percent more children than last year are coming for lunch and breakfast to the sites at four schools and one city park. The program serves a breakfast of cereal, milk and crackers to about 250 children, and another 350 to 400 lunches of cold-cut sandwiches, fresh fruit or vegetables, milk and sometimes whole-grain chips. With an additional $3,000 grant that Groton and just four other communities in the state received, parents also may have free lunches this summer.
"We did a big blitz campaign, where we went around to all the neighborhoods and did door hangers about the program," Koschmieder said.
In Norwich, both the number of sites and the number of meals served has increased by about 10 percent this year, Jacobs said. Four sites were added, serving lunch to a total of about 1,000 and breakfast to about half that number. That's about one third of the number served in free lunch programs during the school year, Jacobs said.
"We know there's more kids out there, but we don't know where to find them," she said, adding that the program is advertised on posters at community meal sites and agency offices, on fliers at city housing and in notices sent home with students before the end of the school year. With no paperwork and no income qualifications, the program is one of the easiest government-funded benefits to use.
"All you have to do is show up," Jacobs said.
In New London, meals are served at parks, summer school and summer recreation program sites, churches and camps, said Samantha Hinebaugh, director of food services for the school district. New sites this year include Centro de la Comunidad and Abounding Grace Ministries, a Connecticut Avenue church. Cold-cut sandwiches are made fresh in school kitchens for each day except Thursdays, which is always pizza day.
"We're serving about 1,000 lunches a day, and 550 breakfasts," Hinebaugh said, adding that the numbers are roughly one-third of the total students served free lunch during the school year. "I've spoken to parents, and they tell me they rely on it."