JAFFREY — A fridge full of vegetables by the checkout counter, to-go snack bags by the door, and fruit trees and bushes planted in the Jaffrey Public Library’s Learning Garden are all part of the library’s continuing effort to teach children about where their food comes from, and address food insecurity in the community.
Since 2017, the Jaffrey Public Library has been adding programs to build “food literacy” — where our food comes from and what effects the food we eat has on our health and the community around us.
Four years ago, it started with the library’s Seed Library program. With grant assistance, the library was able to provide a variety of seeds that patrons could choose to use in their own garden, or offer seeds from their own gardening efforts.
Since then, the library has continued to expand the program, to include hatching chicks, providing a small raised bed for children to plant seeds and watch them grow, and introducing them to vermiculture, the cultivation of earthworms.
“We had all these little programs on food literacy, but they were happening in these little silos apart from each other,” said Library Director Julie Perrin.
The Learning Garden, installed two years ago, was a way to tie some of those programs together, Perrin said.
The Learning Garden is planted along the side of the library, and consists mostly of perennial flowers and bushes meant to attract pollinators like bees and butterflies, which are abundant among the blooms throughout the summer. Perrin said she was approached by Aaron Abitz of Katsura Landscaping in Jaffrey, who offered to help design and plant the garden to be used as a teaching tool.
Since then, Perrin said, the garden has become just that. It’s helped to demonstrate the process of pollination, and prior to July’s torrential rains, the library formed a Learning Garden Brigade, led by Girl Scout volunteer Charlotte Hutchinson and assisted by young story time participants, that regularly watered the garden to combat drought conditions.
This year, the library added a new program — the “Farm Fresh Checkout” refrigerator.
The produce from the Learning Garden’s fruit trees and blueberry bush have been joined by donations from three local farms to stock a mini-fridge near the library checkout desk, and it is regularly refilled with fresh fruits and vegetables from Jaffrey farmers.
Last Friday, the fridge had been freshly restocked with cherry tomatoes, green beans and apples, provided by Foggy Hill Farm in Jaffrey.
Patrons of the library can make free use of the produce available. Perrin said there is no need component or paperwork to fill out — whether it is for a family to help stretch their food budget, or merely to fill a craving for cherry tomatoes, the fridge is open to everyone. Perrin said while there is no requirement of need, the program was initially sparked as a way to combat food insecurity in the community.
“We’re addressing a need we see, but it’s open to everyone. Farmers are happy to share. You can just take what you want or need. It’s just one more way we’re trying to be a community center,” Perrin said. “At the fridge, we also have books about healthy eating, cookbooks, books about farm life and proper food preparation.”
Christine Pressman, owner of Foggy Hill Farm and a former employee at Jaffrey Public Library, said when Perrin contacted her about the possibility of donating produce for the Farm Fresh Checkout program, she didn’t give it a second thought.
“If Julie asks, you say ‘yes,’ and obviously this is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s a world-class library, in my opinion, and the work they’re doing to expand what ‘literacy’ is to ensuring people understand eco-literacy and agro-literacy is fantastic,” Pressman said. “The library also serves a huge role for our school kids who come out of school at 3 p.m., and don’t have a clear other place to go.”
The library had previously run an afternoon snack program for school-aged children on Wednesdays, which has switched to a “to-go” bag of snacks, provided by the local food pantry, during the pandemic. Pressman said the Farm Fresh Checkout is a way to extend the reach of that program.
“It really is a natural step for the library, as well as supporting local farms and educating their population about local farms and farmers, in a way that’s not just a brochure,” Pressman said. “In addition to educating the public, they’re also, quite frankly, feeding people and helping to close that food insecurity gap that exists quietly in the community. I love the idea of kids snacking on fresh veggies.”
Perrin said the programs have grown naturally over several years, and that’s how she’d like to see it continue to grow. The Learning Garden has been integrated into the library’s outdoor story times — children picked from the blueberry bush after reading the picture book “Blueberries for Sal,” for example — and in the fall, the library plans to create slides with pieces of Learning Garden flowers to add to its STEAM program microscopes for children to examine.
Perrin said many of these programs have some initial cost, but very little to maintain, and can easily be used to build the knowledge of the children in the community of the importance of agriculture and supporting local farmers.
“This is an easy win for a community in need, and a great way to promote health literacy and support local agriculture,” Perrin said.