v31#4 Optimizing Library Services — Food for Thought: Leveraging Library Services to Address Food Insecurity

by | Oct 4, 2019 | 0 comments

by Kymberly Goodson  (Program Director for Spaces, Lending, & Access (SLA), University of California San Diego) 

and Rachel Conry  (Circulation Services Manager, University of California San Diego) 

Column Editors:  Caroline J. Campbell  (Marketing Manager, IGI Global) 

and Lindsay Wertman  (Managing Director, IGI Global)    www.igi-global.com

Column Editors’ Note:  This column features IGI Global contributing author Kymberly Goodson, the Program Director for Spaces, Lending, & Access at the University of California San Diego, USA, and her colleague Rachel Conry, the Circulation Services Manager at the University of California San Diego, USA.  Ms. Goodson is a contributor to and editor of the publication Incrementally Building Community and User Engagement in the UC San Diego Library, and she is also a contributing author to Innovative Solutions for Building Community in Academic Libraries, edited by Sheila Bonnand and Mary Anne Hansen from Montana State University, USA.— CJC and LW


In June 2018, the University of California (UC), San Diego Library held an inaugural Food for Fine$ drive, collecting non-perishable food items benefiting the year-round campus food pantry in exchange for fine forgiveness.  The drive has continued twice annually, in December and June, intentionally timed to coincide with students moving out of their dorms and residences at the end of the school year.  Steadily gaining popularity among the student community, each instance evolves in response to observations and feedback.

Complementing the Library’s myriad de-stress and wellness activities, this campaign supports students’ basic needs and raises awareness about often hidden food scarcity issues on campus.  Providing an incentive for library users to give back to fellow students sets an example for collaboration and generosity and encourages students to consider alternatives to food waste, both in the immediate and long terms.

Literature Review

Food drives, often called Food for Fines, have long been popular in public libraries across the nation for patron relations and retention, resumption of borrowing privileges, and return of overdue items.  Some offer one-for-one exchange of grocery items for forgiveness of fines associated with a single overdue item, while others specify a per-item credit value. Beyond non-perishable food, some public libraries have accepted pet supplies (Library Administrator’s Digest, 2013);  paper, cleaning, and hygiene products (Library Administrator’s Digest, 2014, p. 5); and contributions to Ethiopian relief (Simpson, 1984, p. 29) for credit toward fines. Many libraries report positive exposure for the library and positive user response to such initiatives (Library Administrator’s Digest, 2010, p. 17-18).  Opponents criticize such initiatives for reducing an important source of library income and as labor intensive activities not directly related to the library’s primary mission (Library Administrator’s Digest, 2014, p. 5).

With greater awareness of the growing prevalence of food insecurity on college campuses, academic libraries have begun to tap into the opportunities this kind of programming affords.  See examples in the Resources section.

Some Food for Fines policies vary across participating academic libraries, while others are more universal.  

• All require donations in good condition, unopened, and not expired.  Some refuse items in glass containers.  

• Most exclude replacement fees and fines for lost or damaged items.  

• Most allow users to donate food items even without fees to be waived.

• Most designate a fixed per-item value, typically $1.00-$5.00, while a few offer a range of credit depending on the item.  

• Many set a maximum amount of credit that can be earned, often ranging from $20.00 to $50.00.  

• Some allow for credit toward already paid or future fines, while others specifically exclude these. 

• Some specify a limited time for their initiatives, typically one to three weeks, while others do not.  The University of Dayton scheduled its food drive to correspond with April’s National Library Week.  

• Some specify a time during which eligible fines must have been accrued, such as the current academic term.  

• Some offer the initiative once annually, while others host it several times each year.

• Some specify most-needed items (often breakfast items, canned meat, and non-perishable milk) and may offer additional credit for those.  

• Some accept toiletries and hygiene products in addition to food donations.


Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways” (2018).  Despite a wealth of negative impacts on the academic experience, food insecurity is common among college and university students nationwide. Most of these institutions offer a food pantry for their students, though many remain under-resourced and face ever-increasing use of their services.  Twelve (Wood, Harris III, & Delgado, 2016, p. 3) to forty-eight (Dubick, et al., 2016, p. 7) percent of college student respondents in two 2016 reports experienced food insecurity that year. 

Despite the perceived affluence and privilege of UC San Diego students, national trends in food insecurity are present.  Understanding this challenge, UC President Janet Napolitano launched the Global Food Initiative in 2016 to “develop solutions for food, health, and sustainability throughout the UC system and beyond” (Wong, 2019).  UC and California State University in-state tuition has more than tripled over the past two decades (Robbins, 2019).  Though regular tuition increases leveled off in recent years, the San Diego area maintains a high cost of living (79% above national average, according to Salary Expert), making covering basic expenses like food and rent challenging for many students.  Approximately one-third of UC San Diego’s students come from homes with an annual family income of less than $60,000 (Robbins, 2019).  The 2018 University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey (UCUES), a biennial survey of student behaviors and circumstances conducted at UC’s nine undergraduate campuses, found 18-43 percent of respondents experienced some elements of food insecurity during the 2017-18 academic year.  It was in this context that the UC San Diego Library chose to contribute to wider campus efforts to support student success beyond traditional library services.  


Preliminary considerations for the food drive included identifying appropriate fees to waive, waiver limits, eligible food items, credit values, training for service and billing staff, outreach strategies, documentation, and statistics collection.

While monies collected from fines and fees add negligible amounts to the Library’s budget, replacement costs for lost or damaged items do represent a modest but important portion of the Library’s replacement fund.  As such, replacement charges are the only fees excluded from waiver eligibility. Administrative billing and processing fees associated with replacement charges are eligible, along with overdue fines for recalls and course reserves.  

Individual waiver limits were set at $40.00 — sufficient to clear four overdue reserves charges (by far the most common charge), processing fees for two replacement items, or nearly three recall or billing fees — to incentivize participation.  For many students, this can completely resolve outstanding charges, and for others it can significantly reduce the amount owed. Paid charges were also eligible for refund, but all fees must have been accrued during the current academic quarter. 

Guidelines for donations were largely established by the food pantry and followed traditional restrictions such as unopened, unexpired items.  Further restrictions imposed were informed by lessons learned by other institutions such as excluding “junk” items like gum and candy items and items in glass containers.  Examples of eligible and ineligible items were included in promotional and training materials. For the first Food for Fine$, for instance, all items were assigned a credit value of $2.00, while in the subsequent drives, a special promotion was offered for full-sized donations of oatmeal and cereal, identified by the food pantry as one of their greatest needs.  These highlighted items earned $5.00 each. In the 3rd instance, single serving items such as nutritional bars and oatmeal packets were accepted at $0.50 each.

Always mindful of service desk transaction and wait times, the acceptance process was made as simple as possible.  Desk staff were given training materials to help determine acceptable items but were also empowered to make independent decisions about anything ambiguous.  Staff were asked to note the number of items collected per user and total dollar value to be credited. Behind the scenes, billing staff determine fines eligibility, process waivers, and send confirmation emails thanking all donors and confirming the credit amount.  All donors receive confirmation and gratitude, even if they donated without fees to waive.

Outreach and promotion strategies, particularly regarding timing, presented the biggest challenges.  Heavily promoting the campaign early can potentially encourage incurring fees and abusing the program, perhaps to the disadvantage of other users who might not gain access to needed materials.  Alternately, limiting event promotion also limits awareness and participation. Promotion for the first instance was limited to two weeks immediately preceding the campaign and took the form of handouts and posters in the library, digital signage, social media posts, and a campus newspaper article.  Adjustments were made following underwhelming participation. Later, the event was promoted throughout the quarter, primarily when users were notified of accrued fees, with business cards advertising brief details. Other expanded outreach efforts included:

• Flyers and digital signs in the student center and other campus locations

• Ads on campus shuttles 

• Events posted to University and student calendars

• A message to the University’s Reddit group and other social media outlets

• Displays of eligible food items in busy Library spaces and at the Front Desk  

After each drive, donations are categorized, counted, and documented, including the number of unique contributors and average and overall value of collective donations.  Photos are taken of student employees showcasing the collection, both in the library and with food pantry staff, for use in future promotional materials. Library assessment staff compile results and statistics into a report, and Food for Fine$ organizers use the data to identify trends and strategies that inform the next iteration.


Participants, donated items, and fines waived all increased during each instance of the initiative.  Across three instances, donations were accepted from 93 individuals, who benefitted by receiving a collective total of $1,126.50 in waived library fines.  Perhaps more importantly, the initiative provided 530 items to the campus food pantry.  

When the initiative launched, the food pantry indicated its greatest need as that for boxed cereals and oatmeal.  The two latter instances incorporated a Breakfast Bonus ($5.00 per item) for these items. The response was positive, resulting in this category garnering the greatest number of items in both instances, while it was very low when not highlighted in the inaugural instance.  

Across all instances, highlighted items, canned/dry fruits and vegetables, and pasta constituted the most frequent donations.  More nutritionally valuable items were also received over time, while junk food donations decreased. Over time, donors without fines to waive also increased, as did participants donating items well beyond the amount of their fines.


The planning invested prior to the foundational Food for Fine$ campaign enabled the Library to easily re-create the initiative.  Furthermore, the infrastructure is in place to extrapolate this concept for non-food-related drives benefiting the campus and local community in additional ways and furthering the Library’s increasing sustainability efforts.  In addition to ideas generated from the literature review (pet supplies, cleaning products, world aid, etc.), the UC San Diego Library is considering future drives for toothbrushes and other personal hygiene supplies, benefiting San Diego’s growing homeless population which heartbreakingly includes university students, with a tagline to “Brush Away Your Fines.”  Similarly, a drive around the holidays could collect toys and books to support Active Duty and Veteran families, recognizing San Diego’s substantial military presence. Another unique, possibly Halloween-themed idea was Loyola Marymount University’s initiative to award $2.00 off library fines to participants of the campus blood drive.  Cycling through themes keeps the events fresh and engaging, sheds light on other issues facing underrepresented groups, and maximizes the Library’s philanthropic impact on the campus and local communities. 


Food for Fines drives, while more common in public libraries, are relatively simple to organize and have many benefits for academic libraries and the populations they serve.  Academic libraries share a mission of supporting student success, and contrary to criticisms of these campaigns, food drives and other cross-promotional initiatives promote a more holistic approach to achieving that goal.  It instills goodwill between the library and both participating and non-participating library users, as well as with campus partners and administrators, and creates a welcoming atmosphere for the student population. A Food for Fines campaign can help convert the negative experience of accruing fees into a positive one and presents the Library as a compassionate entity deeply committed to the success and well-being of both student Library users and those who utilize the campus’ food assistance services.  Academic libraries have a largely untapped opportunity to play a larger role in optimizing the student experience, and when that opportunity comes with a low cost and a high reward, it makes the effort even more worthwhile.

Works Cited

Dubick, J., Mathews, B., and Cady, C.  (2016).  Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students.  Retrieved April 22, 2019, from http://studentsagainsthunger.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Hunger_On_Campus.pdf

Library Administrator’s Digest (2010). Food for Fines: A promising win-win project. Library Administrator’s Digest, 45(3), 17-18.

Library Administrator’s Digest (2013).  And now pets!  Library Administrator’s Digest, 48(7), 6.

Library Administrator’s Digest (2014).  Food for fines is back in September.  Library Administrator’s Digest, 49(9), 5.

Library Administrator’s Digest (2014).  Park Ridge Library Board asked again to end ‘Food for Fines.’  Library Administrator’s Digest, 49(9), 5.

Robbins, G.  (2019).  The university is dealing with “food insecurity,” a growing problem on American campuses.  San Diego Union-Tribune (May 6, 2019).  Retrieved May 20, 2019, from https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/education/story/2019-05-06/uc-san-diego-begins-alerting-needy-students-when-leftover-food-is-available?utm_source=Voice+of+San+Diego+Master+List&utm_campaign=fb55ce76d9-Culture_Report&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c2357fd0a3-fb55ce76d9-84043949&goal=0_c2357fd0a3-fb55ce76d9-84043949.

Simpson, T.  (1984).  Fines for food:  Turning delinquent borrowers into good Samaritans. Unabashed Librarian, 52, 29-30.

U. S. Department of Agriculture (2018). Measurement.  Retrieved May 2, 2019, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/measurement.aspx

University of California (2018).  University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey (UCUES).  Retrieved May 2, 2019, from https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/infocenter/ucues-data-tables-2018.

Wong, J.  (2019).  The UC’s quest for basic needs.  UCSD Guardian (January 21, 2019). Retrieved April 22, 2019, from http://ucsdguardian.org/2019/01/21/ucs-quest-basic-needs/.

Wood, J. L., Harris III, F., and Delgado, N. R.  (2016).  Struggling to survive – striving to succeed: Food and housing insecurities in the community college. San Diego, CA: Community College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL). Retrieved May 20, 2019, from https://cceal.org/food-housing-report/.


AAC&U News (2017).  Facts & figures — Food and housing insecurities disproportionately hurt black, first-generation, and community college students.  Retrieved April 22, 2019, from https://www.aacu.org/aacu-news/newsletter/facts-figures/jan-feb2017.

Brandeis University (no date).  Food for Fines. Retrieved May 2, 2019, from https://www.brandeis.edu/library/borrowing/privileges/food-for-fines.html.

Campus Food Banks Network (2017). Retrieved April 22, 2019, from https://www.mealexchange.com/campus-food-banks.

Campus Food Systems Project (2015).  Retrieved April 22, 2019, from http://www.studentfood.ca/projects/beyond-campus-food-banks-working-group/.  

Goldrick-Rab, S. and Kendall, N. (2016).  The real price of college. Wisconsin Hope Lab. Retrieved June 5, 2019, from https://tcf.org/content/report/the-real-price-of-college/

Goldrick-Rab, S., Richardson, J., and Hernandez, A.  (2017).  Hungry and homeless in college:  Results from a national study of basic needs insecurity in higher education (Wisconsin HOPE Lab).  Retrieved May 2, 2019, from https://basicneeds.ucsd.edu/_files/2017-hungry-and-homeless-in-college-report.pdf.

Loyola Marymount University (2016).  Food for Fines:  November 16-December 16.  Retrieved June 5, 2019, from https://librarynews.lmu.edu/2016/11/food-fines-november-16-december-16/

Loyola Marymount University (2009).  Food for Fines!  Retrieved June 5, 2019, from https://librarynews.lmu.edu/2009/11/food-for-fines-2/

Meal Exchange (2019).  It’s time to #EndStudentPoverty!  Retrieved April 22, 2019, from https://endstudentpoverty.causevox.com/ and https://www.mealexchange.com/

Oregon State University (2019).  Food for Fines is happening at the Valley Library.  Retrieved May 2, 2019, from https://library.oregonstate.edu/food-4-fines-happening-valley-library.

Schmalz, J.  (2018).  Hungry to learn:  Five students describe their struggles with food and housing insecurity and what colleges can do to help.  Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved May 19, 2019, from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/insecurity?cid=wcontentlist&mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWlRnNE1URXhZVFkxT0RaaiIsInQiOiJmVElybnFGNDJ5Vk1scVNwSHJ5TW1nNStGT1ZVeFQrS2JlV2ZBbm9WZ3orUnJzeTczRjBKSWJyXC9VRHc1YWMxMGVCNVl6M1wvbGNHWW9OWVpXTzhTRTQrcHIrVEV4emFicmZXY09SR2duaGdwemxzRytMYnk5R0MwdnhLQVZFVzVTIn0%3D.

Syracuse University (2019).  April 29-May 10 is “Food for Fines.”  Retrieved May 2, 2019, from http://libnews.syr.edu/april-29-may-10-is-food-for-fines/.

Tangeman, C.  (2019).  Feed the hungry with Food for Fines (University of Dayton).   Retrieved May 2, 2019, from https://udayton.edu/blogs/libraries/2019-04-03-food4fines.php.

Texas A&M University (2019).  Sixth annual Food for Fines program begins in February.  Retrieved May 2, 2019, from https://library.tamu.edu/news/2019/01/Sixth%20Annual%20Food%20for%20Fines%20Program%20Begins%20in%20February%20.html.

UC San Diego Basic Needs Insecurity Committee (2016).  Report on food and housing insecurity at UC San Diego.  Retrieved June 5, 2019, from https://basicneeds.ucsd.edu/_files/BASIC-NEEDS-REPORT.pdf. 

University of California (2017).  Global Food Initiative:  Food and housing security at the University of California.  Retrieved June 5, 2019, from https://www.ucop.edu/global-food-initiative/_files/food-housing-security.pdf. 

University of Texas, Arlington (2017).  Food for Fines. Retrieved May 2, 2019, from https://events.uta.edu/event/food_for_fines_8515#.XL5ZXKR7nmF.

Virginia Commonwealth University (2019).  “Food for Fines” benefits RamPantry.  Retrieved May 2, 2019, from https://www.library.vcu.edu/about/news/2019/food-for-fines-benefits-rampantry.html.

Wright State University (2019).  4th annual Food for Fines drive.  Retrieved April 29, 2019, from https://www.libraries.wright.edu/community/blog/2019/04/09/4th-annual-food-for-fines-drive/.

Recommended Readings

Clarance, M. M., and Angeline, X. M.  (2019).  User Opinion on Library Collections and Services: A Case Study of Branch Library in Karaikudi.  In S. Thanuskodi (Ed.), Literacy Skill Development for Library Science Professionals (pp. 343-375).  Hershey, PA: IGI Global. doi:10.4018/978-1-5225-7125-4.ch015

Ene, C., Voica, M. C., and Panait, M.  (2019).  Green Investments and Food Security: Opportunities and Future Directions in the Context of Sustainable Development. In I. Management Association (Ed.), Green Business: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp. 1630-1659).  Hershey, PA: IGI Global. doi:10.4018/978-1-5225-7915-1.ch079

Goodson, K.  (2018). Incrementally Building Community and User Engagement in the UC San Diego Library. In I. Management Association (Ed.), Library Science and Administration: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp. 834-856).  Hershey, PA: IGI Global. doi:10.4018/978-1-5225-3914-8.ch039

Ikolo, V. E.  (2018).  Users Satisfaction With Library Services: A Case Study of Delta State University Library. In I. Management Association (Ed.), Library Science and Administration: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp. 881-891).  Hershey, PA: IGI Global. doi:10.4018/978-1-5225-3914-8.ch041

Juliani, D. P., Silva, A., Cunha, J., and Benneworth, P.  (2019). Universities’ Contributions to Sustainable Development’s Social Challenge: A Case Study of a Social Innovation Practice. In I. Management Association (Ed.), Socio-Economic Development: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp. 379-399).  Hershey, PA: IGI Global. doi:10.4018/978-1-5225-7311-1.ch021

Kumar, A., and Thanuskodi, S.  (2018). Using Social Network Sites for Library Services in Public Libraries: Possibilities and Challenges. In I. Management Association (Ed.), Library Science and Administration: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp. 556-572).  Hershey, PA: IGI Global. doi:10.4018/978-1-5225-3914-8.ch026

Twait, M.  (2018).  Peer-to-Peer Outreach and Promotion. In I. Management Association (Ed.), Library Science and Administration: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp. 325-344).  Hershey, PA: IGI Global. doi:10.4018/978-1-5225-3914-8.ch015  

Column Editor’s End Note:  Librarians’ roles are constantly evolving to include services such as Food for Fines programs and the like, which tackles topics such as library programs and services, community involvement, food security, and sustainability.  For years, IGI Global has been aware of these ever-changing roles and has worked to include the most recent and quality peer-reviewed research on these topics. Research surrounding the topics in this article can be found in IGI Global’s databases, InfoSci-Books and InfoSci-Journals specifically, which act to provide valuable content to librarians and their patrons.

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