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EPL and other community resources expanded because of the pandemic

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When the pandemic started, Evanston Public Library’s Communications and Marketing Director Jenette Sturges found herself struggling to digitize the library’s large catalog of in-person resources with very little notice. 

Now, she said she and her colleagues at EPL are able to offer more programming than was previously possible. 

As COVID-19 restrictions gradually lift in Evanston and across the country, Sturges said the library will continue offering some of its digital spaces in addition to its physical ones.

EPL joins many community groups and institutions around Evanston in continuing programs initially created to accommodate stay-at-home orders and other pandemic-related health concerns. 

“Our students, and our younger students in particular, now have more options than ever,” Sturges said. “Things really do work well on Zoom.” 

These expanded options are not beneficial to just young children, Sturges said. Evanston residents of all ages are able to attend talks and book clubs in an online format. 

Over the course of the pandemic, EPL began author talks with Illinois Library Present, a statewide collaboration among over 200 public libraries — something Sturges said wouldn’t have been possible without Zoom. Illinois Library Present hosts evenings in which authors talk about their writing processes and life experiences. 

EPL and ILP will host Nick Offerman of Parks and Recreation on April 27, an event Sturges said is best suited for an online format. Sturges said the opportunity to offer both online and in-person opportunities led to higher quality programming. 

The community response has been overwhelmingly positive, Sturges said, and EPL plans to continue offering joint programming with other libraries across the state.

The library’s extended online programming will include online tutorials and videos for library resources and programs. Sturges said last year, EPL ran its annual “Cardboard Carnival” online, an activity where students build an arcade game out of cardboard to learn about engineering and programming. 

Though it will offer its Cardboard Carnival in person again this year, EPL plans to upload video explainers to YouTube for students who may not be able to make it to the library regularly. Tech tutorials will also be available for adults –– Sturges said EPL will upload more tutorials in Spanish and continue to emphasize ebooks and other downloadables.

“Even as the pandemic eases, we will be continuing to invest in those resources and make sure people know they are available,” she said. “We’re adding more of basically any opportunity we find where we can make it accessible and available over a computer.” 

For Mary Beth Roth at Interfaith Action of Evanston, the pandemic revealed new possibilities for the organization. She helps coordinate “Producemobile,” which delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to Evanston residents. 

The Producemobile has been operational for almost a decade, and is centrally coordinated by the Greater Chicago Food Depository but relies on local volunteers. 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, it was unsafe for older volunteers to work, and many people in their 30s, 40s and 50s stepped in since they were no longer commuting to work,” she said. 

Roth said involvement from new parts of the community built a sense of camaraderie in Evanston. 

Other organizations, like food justice initiative Evanston Grows, experienced a similar collaboration, partnering with other community institutions to serve the city. 

During the pandemic, Evanston Grows developed a relationship with social workers at Evanston/Skokie District 65, according to Evanston Grows Board President Jean Fies. 

Through that partnership, Evanston Grows is able to directly reach District 65 students and families who are eligible for free and reduced lunch.  

Evanston Grows also expanded its operations during the pandemic to accommodate  increased need. The organization partnered with EPL, having quarterly operations meetings to ensure other Evanston residents were aware of their services even without school-aged children in the house. 

“Those relationships as a whole really appeared during COVID-19,” Fies said. “All of the organizations appreciate sharing space and conversations with others who have the same objectives.”

Fies said COVID-19 made it clear just how life-saving produce distribution can be since some residents lack consistent access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Now, she said, there is a national supply chain disruption, and produce prices are skyrocketing.

As a result, Evanston Grows decided to focus on growing produce locally in order to cut out distribution costs. To sustain this practice, the organization is looking at new sites to develop, grow, harvest and pass out produce. The organization has plans to develop a site at Eggleston Park, and Fies said it is working with faith-based groups to develop vacant land in the city. 

Although these high prices are not direct consequences of the pandemic, according to Fies, the last two years helped the program identify where there is a specific need for fresh produce. 

“One thing we learned during the pandemic certainly is that having fresh produce on a weekly basis, or some other reliable and consistent basis, is very helpful in health equity issues,” Fies said. “The pandemic clearly highlighted many of these inequities in who it most affected.”

Looking to the future, Fies said she hopes to develop a relationship with Northwestern to further expand Evanston produce cultivation and distribution. 

“It’s important to make this as widely available as possible because if people have access to healthier choices and the ability to choose what they’re eating, there are real health benefits,” she said.

Email: [email protected]stern.edu

Twitter: @avanidkalra

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