July 13, 2015

JetBlue’s book vending machines



JetBlue is piloting a program to distribute free books to kids via vending machines.
© JetBlue Airways

In a move that the cynics among us (hello!) might say is an attempt to distract people from the recent introduction of checked baggage fees, JetBlue Airways is launching a literacy program for kids in low-income areas. Tayla Burney writes for the Kojo Nnamdi Show’s blog that the airline is setting up vending machines to provide books to young readers around the Southeast area of Washington, DC.

Burney describes “book deserts” in urban areas like Southeast, where even if neighborhood kids have access to a library, they still “lack the resources required for building a home library of their own.” That’s the issue that JetBlue’s Soar with Reading intends to combat with a test run of this program over the summer. There are three book vending machines, located at a Salvation Army, a Safeway supermarket, and a church. Children are allowed to visit the machines as many times as they like over the course of the summer’s pilot program, and get new books for free by entering their age and a topic that interests them. Icena Gibbs, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for JetBlue, says that “in addition to helping families start a library, we hope it shows retailers that there’s demand for access to age appropriate reading material in the community.”

On their page for Soar with Reading, JetBlue states that they commissioned a study from childhood literacy expert Susan Neuman, who says that her (still ongoing) research demonstrates that the availability of books to children in certain underserved communities has only gotten worse since her previous study in 2001. Neuman estimates that in the neighborhood of Anacostia in DC, there is only access to one age-appropriate book per 830 children, a big part of the impetus for JetBlue to use the area as a testing ground.

Burney points out that, as a pilot program, there’s no guarantee that the vending machines will remain in place beyond the summer, or be expanded to other cities, but she makes an impassioned case for them:

We know that not all kids in our region have easy access to resources, a fact highlighted by a Washington Post piece this spring that pointed up unequal access to books in school libraries within the District. It’s a national problem as well, with President Obama using the Anacostia Library as a backdrop for the announcement of an initiative that will get e-books to low-income young readers….

Growing up I took the shelf overflowing with books in the corner of my room for granted. It was part of my daily routine to be read to from an early age, and later to read on my own. I’m sure that easy access to books, and interaction with my family around them, is one of the reasons I grew up to be such an avid reader.

If only the same were true for every kid.

JetBlue is confident in Soar with Reading’s potential, though. Gibbs says that the company “really believes this is a great thing, and are excited about doing it. It’s a project we’re entering into without fear of failure.”


Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.