I Love My Librarian Award Winner Lia Kharis Hillman: Cooking Up Something Good at the Library

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By Steve Zalusky

Lia Kharis Hillman has turned her library into a moveable feast.

Hillman, fourth floor program manager at the San Francisco Public Library, drew upon her experience as a former chef to cook up a garden and food education program in library branches across the city.

The program, which helps underserved families meet challenges they have in cooking and, as a result, promotes a healthier lifestyle, is one example of why she was one of 10 chosen for the 2016 I Love My Librarian Award.

Carolyn Federman, her nominator for the 2016 I Love My Librarian award, for which she was one of 10 recipients, said, “Lia has started many programs that extend the role of the library to provide social supports for the community, and each of these programs is now an on-going part of library services thanks to her solo effort.”

Hillman is quick to spot an opportunity. When she started working at the Mission Branch in 2009, Federman said, after noticing that Garden for the Environment was teaching children’s classes inside the library - and that the Children’s Room looked out onto an empty patio – she responded by spending countless hours of her own time building a garden on the patio so the children could learn in an actual garden.

She enlisted the aid of community businesses to provide seed money for the garden and volunteered her time at a seedling company to provide the material for the garden.

It wasn’t long before Garden for the Environment was holding classes in the new garden, and by the first harvest, the children were washing and dressing greens from the garden, while Hillman, a former chef, was whipping up a salad dressing.

Her experience with the garden, as well as her background as a chef, served as a springboard for a program she established after moving to the main branch, “Biblio Bistro,” a mobile kitchen aimed at teaching library patrons how to cook fresh, healthy produce.

Federman, who runs the nonprofit Charlie Cart Project, which provides tools and resources to help children make healthy food choices, said Hillman contacted her to beta test the program.  “Lia applied for a grant to purchase our curt and curriculum,” she said. The mobile kitchen, which was equipped with a sink, oven, stove top and kitchen tools, was dubbed the “Biblio Bistro.”

The Biblio Bistro is now a familiar sight at the Heart of the City Farmer’s Market.  In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Hillman describes the genesis of the program.  She said, “My heart has always been in the kitchen, and I kept thinking about how we could incorporate cooking into a library program. That’s how the Biblio Bistro was born.”

She added, “It’s really empowering knowing how to feed yourself and prepare food,” Hillman said. “It connects you to where food comes from, and shows how we are rooted to this earth and what keeps us going. I want to help people feel more secure about food preparation so they know it’s really not that hard.”  The article described how she wowed the crowd at the market with her culinary skills, as she  chopped chard and cooked the leaves in oil, seasoning it with garlic, salt and pepper.

Federman said Hillman provides training opportunities for her staff and has arranged to transport the cart across the city so that all branches can deliver hands-on cooking lessons to their patrons.  “She has gone above and beyond to teach people in the community how to simply and deliciously prepare fresh produce, a skill that is especially critical for children and families living in poverty.”

Setting the bistro in motion involved a heavy time commitment, as she obtained permits and shopped her program to internal committees, the health department and the fire department.  “Lia has been a true advocate and partner, and she has always worked tirelessly to make learning come alive for the communities she serves,” Federman said.

In an interview with the American Library Association, Hillman said Biblio Bistro was her favorite part of her job.  “I think my favorite part about it is seeing the surprise and delight and the light go on in people’s eyes when they realize that they can do what I’m doing (in preparing the food),” she said.

In discussing the ways libraries transform, she said, “At San Francisco Public Library, we are pretty heavy on programming, in which case we touch many parts of people’s lives and enrich them and enhance them. We also have all the resources to support that, and in that way we are a beacon in the community for all people.”

The I Love My Librarian Award is sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York, The New York Times, and the New York Public Library. The award is administered by the American Library Association.

Read more about the award and other 2016 winners at www.ilovelibraries.org/lovemylibrarian.

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