Are Vending Machines with Free Books the Best Way to Tackle Urban “Reading Deserts”?

It’s summer. It’s hot. You’re bored. You’re a kid living in Detroit and there isn’t a library or bookstore anywhere nearby. Enter Jet Blue’s “Soar with Reading” initiative which puts vending machines in cities full of free books curated for kids age 0-14. What’s the catch? There isn’t one. How many books can a kid take? As many as they want, thanks to a generous partnership with Random House and others who have donated over $1,750,000 worth of books.

JetBlue, Justin Upton

Bryan Mitchell/AP Images for JetBlue

Some naysayers argue that the vending machines are pricey and the money should have been used to purchase more books for “less-expensive” initiatives like Little Free Libraries. I love the tiny library movement, but this shouldn’t be an “either/or” scenario. What’s wrong with having various strategies for getting books into the hands of kids in Detroit and other communities across the US?

In addition, fun design matters. Novelty matters. Innovation matters. The vending machines provide an entertaining user experience, and generate excitement from the feeling of getting something new and valuable that’s yours to keep.

A whopping 93% of Detroit’s eighth graders are not proficient in reading, according to 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. Clearly Detroit and many places in the US with low literacy rates can use a broad range of reading programs and partnerships.

As a strategist interested in responsible philanthropy and innovative social impact, here’s what it boils down to for me:

  • Will “Soar with Reading” solve all of the literacy issues in Detroit and the other partner cities? Nope.
  • Will it give parents, caregivers and educators a boost in getting books into the hands of the kids they love? Yup.
  • Will it bring attention to reading and literacy issues? Yup.
  • Is it driving corporate social responsibility dollars to lean-resource communities? Yup.
  • Could it provide leverage for local organizations and educators to develop new and stronger relationships with the corporations involved, and with other donors interested in educating young people? Yup.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – will it spark an interest in reading and inspire kids to transition a bit of their brain bandwidth from stuff like TV and video games to books?

I sure hope so.


P.S. Learn more & get involved:

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