The Baltimore City Health Department is piloting a new program at two branches of The Enoch Pratt Free Library, the public library system of the City of Baltimore (Baltimore, like St. Louis, is independent from the county that surrounds it). It’s called The Virtual Supermarket Project. People can purchase groceries online and then go pick them up at the library the next day. Both communities selected for the program are food deserts. NPR has the story: Check It Out: Get Your Groceries at the Library
I love, love, love this idea and I hope the new program does well. Maybe it’s not quite the same thing as having a supermarket in the area, but it’s a start. As someone who lived in a food desert without a car for years, I can appreciate the difference this could make in the daily lives and the health of the people who use it. When something as simple as getting produce is a complicated ordeal, it just isn’t easy to stay healthy. I remember exchanging jokes with similarly carless friends who also lived in food deserts: “So-and-so just offered me a ride to the store! I’m gonna buy two months’ worth of liquids today! Detergent and orange juice, here I come!” The idea of getting one’s groceries at the library may sound unorthodox, but when I relied on my feet in a resource ghetto, I got my toothpaste and toilet paper at the hardware store and I sometimes picked up a couple of bananas at the ice cream parlor. They were pretty much the only businesses remaining, and they expanded their roles a bit to fit the overwhelming gap that the flight of the rest of the commercial sphere had left behind.
The Virtual Supermarket Project is also noteworthy as an innovative way for libraries to serve their communities. As school closures become a normalized part of the way many struggling cities operate, neighborhoods that have already lost their commercial spheres often find themselves losing one of the last non-residential, non-church buildings that they have. Certainly, it was sometimes difficult to find a place to have a community meeting on the Near North Side in St. Louis, and one wonders where people will vote in Old North should Ames School end up closing in coming years. But library branches remain in many challenged communities, even as other institutions board up and leave. I realize that libraries are closing in many municipalities across the country right now, but in my urban-dwelling experience, they’ve been far less fickly ebb-and-flow than most other public and private service providers in the landscape.
As the way that people seek information changes, librarians are starting to realize that libraries have to be about more than books in order to remain useful and relevant, and to survive. While such thoughts are usually geared more towards embracing new technology and new media, I would submit that the not-just-ink-and-paper sentiment fits here, too. Of course, I don’t think that every library in every neighborhood ought to start specializing primarily in milk and eggs, nor should they try to be all things to all people in this time of furloughs and budget cuts. Everyone who’s worked in customer service in a public library has fielded inquiries of the gee-I-guess-no-one-but-us-would-answer-that variety, and on a headachey day such things can make one grumble about libraries becoming a catch-all. But in places where the public and commercial spheres are shrinking or altogether gone, it makes sense for libraries consider stepping up to fill little parts of the void they if can–taking care of the “public” in “public library.” Milk and eggs might not be the need or an achievable goal at every branch across the country, but asking what your users and potential users need is always a good idea.