South Side resident Robert Aaron at the Free Dinners for Adults at the South Side Branch of the Bethlehem Area Public Library on March 21. Aaron is one of the program’s regulars, attending dinner every Tuesday and Thursday. (Jude Gerhart/B&W Staff)

More than books: South Side Branch library offers free dinner for adults


Enter the South Side branch of the Bethlehem Area Public Library, go through a back door and down a flight of stairs. There, you’ll see a small room consisting of a few tables, lots of books and a free meal.

This month, the library’s South Side branch partnered with the Bethlehem YMCA to create a program called Free Dinner for Adults. The program offers free dinners to those 18 years or older in need living in South Bethlehem. They can typically feed about 15 people per night.

The library hosts the event every Tuesday and Thursday during March from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Amresse Farrow, the marketing and development director for the Bethlehem Area Public Libraries, said as of now, the program is scheduled to end this month.

Farrow said the YMCA’s new kitchen allows it to provide multiple meals almost every day to anyone in need. Last summer, the library reached out to the Bethlehem YMCA to offer their South Side branch as a central location for the free meals. 

Farrow said she hopes to show people in Bethlehem that libraries are more than just books. They are also places people can turn to for help — with their variety of programs dedicated to supporting local children and adults. 

“Being able to fill in the gaps of all the resources that our community needs is very important to us,” Farrow said. “We wouldn’t be able to operate as a library if it weren’t for us constantly reinventing ourselves and offering relevant resources.”

Free Dinners for Adults is the newest of many food insecurity programs that have been established at the library. With South Bethlehem being considered a food desert, the South Side branch works to help provide food to the community.

Previous food insecurity programs that have been offered at the Bethlehem Area Public Libraries include setting up food donation boxes and dedicating a section of the library to gardening. Over the summer, some locations hosted farmers markets to set up and sell food.

Christine Wieder, adult services librarian for the Bethlehem libraries, is part of the team that helped establish the dinner program.

“I have just seen the needs in the community over my past year working here, and I knew it would be something really great for our regulars,” Wieder said. “It’s also another way to entice people to come into the library for the first time and see the other resources that we can offer them.”

The YMCA has volunteers deliver food to the South Side branch every Tuesday afternoon. Once it arrives at the library, half of the food is set up, while the other half is refrigerated until Thursday. 

The food for Free Dinners for Adults is delivered by Bethlehem YMCA volunteers. It is then arranged by adult services librarian Christine Wieder. Enough food is donated to feed around 15 people per meal. (Jude Gerhart/B&W Staff)

Chicken sandwiches, carrots and applesauce were offered on March 21.

Not only does Wieder take part in establishing the event, but she helps set up and run the dinners semiweekly. Wieder said she likes to volunteer to learn more about the South Bethlehem community.

“I’ve really gotten the opportunity to get to know our community even more,” Wieder said. “It’s always good to get to know the people that you’re serving, and it’s another great way to really build that rapport with people we see so often.”

Denise Neff is a South Bethlehem resident currently living in a homeless shelter. With less than a month left until she has to find a new place to live, Neff said she appreciates the generosity of Free Dinners for Adults.

She was one of the few adults who attended the program on March 21.

“I think a lot of places should be this nice with food and drink, and sharing it with everyone,” Neff said.

South Side resident Denise Neff eats a free dinner at the South Side Branch of the Bethlehem Area Public Library on March 21. Neff is currently staying in a homeless shelter in Bethlehem and attends the Free Dinners for Adults weekly. (Jude Gerhart/ B&W Staff)

Farrow said she and the rest of her team have tried to remain optimistic about the future of Free Dinners for Adults. Although it is planned to end this month, she said there is hope the program may be able to continue.

She said as long as they see there is a need, they are dedicated to filling it.

“Honestly, there really isn’t anything that we’re not capable of doing or open to doing,” Farrow said.

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