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Fairfax Library's 'Food For Fines' Program Helps The Hungry

Patch logo Patch 1/14/2020 Mark Hand
a stack of flyers on a table © Provided by Patch

FAIRFAX COUNTY, VA — The second year of Fairfax County Public Library's Food for Fines program proved a big success again, with some residents donating non-perishable food items even if they didn't have any book or other types of library fines to pay off. Altogether, the county's 22 library branches collected about 9,000 items of nonperishable food from residents during the month of December.

Food donations made as part of the Food for Fines program can reduce or eliminate fines accrued on an individual's library card account. Each item donated will erase $1 from a patron's overdue fines up to a maximum of $15 per account. All of the food goes to Food for Others, a Fairfax County nonprofit food pantry that helps families and individuals in need across the county.

"We were inspired by other library systems," Ted Kavich, administrative services division director for Fairfax County Public Library and the person who developed the partnership with Food for Others, told Patch. "This is something that we've seen happening in other systems where libraries will accept various kinds of donations to help a community and in return the customer who brings in the donation will get a break on their fines owed to the library."

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After strong participation in the 2018 Food for Fines program, Kavich said there was no question the Fairfax County library system would continue the program. "We had a really amazing first year," he said. "It was so popular right away that we started talking about it as an annual program almost immediately."

Residents are instructed on what types of food and products were acceptable. Non-perishable food items most needed include canned meats and tuna, macaroni and cheese, cereal, peanut butter, stew and chili (canned), pasta and rice, pasta sauce, canned fruit, beans, fruit juice and vegetable oil. This year non-food items such as shampoo, deodorant, diapers, paper towels and toilet paper also were accepted.

Toward the end of December and into the new year, food donations were collected from the individual branches and taken to the library's technical operations facility in Chantilly. Food for Others drivers then came to the facility to pick up the boxes of food.

When the library started to research for the program in 2018, it wanted to identify a partner that served as much of Fairfax County as possible and not just a small part of the county. "We did quite a bit of research and our best fit was definitely Food for Others," Kavich said. "They pretty much reach across the entire county."

Since forming the partnership, Food for Others has been extremely enthusiastic and grateful about the partnership, he said.

In promoting the Food for Fines program, the library points to a recent Fairfax County study that revealed 8.4 percent of students report going hungry due to a lack of food in the home. With the library's commitment to literacy and learning, it made sense to partner with Food for Others, the library said.

Jessica Hudson, director of Fairfax County Public Library, brought some friendly competition to the 2019 edition of the Food for Fines program. "The branch that collects the most amount of food earns a pizza party for the staff," Hudson said in early December upon announcing the program.

Based on the final results, the Chantilly Regional Library of the Fairfax system collected the largest amount of food for the second year in a row. The Patrick Henry Library in the town of Vienna collected the most food among community libraries in the system.

The library system also had a competition for the branch that created the best work of art using food donations. Library branch participants had to submit a photo of their works of art. The Richard Byrd Library in Springfield was the winner of the art contest (see photo above). In the end, both the Chantilly and Richard Byrd libraries won pizza parties for their staff.

In 2018, the library system held its Food for Fines program in November, a time when people may have more time to think about helping others. By December, residents are racing around buying gifts and making holiday plans and have less time to focus on bringing in food to the library.

In 2019, though, the library had no choice but to hold the Food for Fines program in December because the launch of its new and improved library catalog was such a massive undertaking that staff members wouldn't have the time to devote enough attention to the food drive.

"We had intended to do it again in November, a time of the year that's not yet crazy with shopping. Because we moved to our new integrated library system in November, there was no question that November would not work," Kavich said. "So we moved it to December because we didn't want to take a year off."

Although the total weight of food donated in December has yet to be calculated, Kavich said the library estimates about 9,000 items were collected in December 2019 compared to 14,000 items in November 2018. For 2020, the library plans to move the Food for Fines program back to November.

The most important part of the Food for Fines program, according to Kavich, is the people across Fairfax County who benefit from the donations. But the program also has demonstrated a great sense of community in the county.

People participated in the program regardless of any benefit to them. "Many customers brought donations in without having any fines on their account," Kavich said. "They just wanted to donate."

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