Via Eisenberg, 4, wipes her face on a chair after finishing a free box lunch at the Shepard Park Library in Washington, D.C. After the meal, Eisenberg and others attended a free science class. (Daniel C. Britt/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Benavi Eisenberg, 6, knelt in his chair, his right arm stretched high and fingers wiggling, hoping to be called upon.

A frequent visitor to the District’s Juanita E. Thornton/Shepherd Park Library, Benavi was participating in the free hands-on Science in the Summer program. On this Thursday, seven students were dropping objects into a mixture of oil, water and soap to test the objects’ densities. His zeal for books and this particular class were fueled with a chicken Caesar salad, apple slices, graham crackers and milk.

“I’ve read a lot so far,” Benavi said. “I like to read books about outer space.”

What Benavi was enjoying — reading and educational programs, coupled with a free lunch — is exactly what city officials hope will happen more than 11,500 times this summer. The D.C. Public Library Foundation, D.C. Public Library, D.C. Hunger Solutions and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) are sponsoring free meals at 11 public libraries this summer to encourage reading. There are nearly 350 such meal sites participating in this summer’s meal program across the city.

“This is helping over 1,000 children at our District libraries not only with reading, but also with making sure they aren’t hungry when they come to our facilities,” said Eva Poole, the D.C. Public Library’s chief of staff. “Librarians, just as teachers do, know that people are coming in hungry. This is an opportunity for us to actually combat childhood hunger and summer learning loss.”

More than half of the students in D.C. public or charter schools are reading below grade level, according to an OSSE report, and 60 percent of low-income children who rely on free and reduced-price meals during the school year are not reading at their grade levels.

The Food Research and Action Center ranks the District as the top jurisdiction in the country for serving summer meals to low income children, with the city reaching 73.5 percent of those eligible for such meals. Christi Dorsey, program manager at the OSSE, said the meals are made up of lean meats, fruits, vegetables and whole grain as part of the District’s Healthy Schools Act. “Everything is based on nutritional values and has a local grown component,” she said.

José Walters, 5, munched on a peach Friday in the William O. Lockridge/Bellevue Neighborhood Library before moving on to a bag of baby carrots, a turkey sandwich on wheat bread and a carton of non-fat chocolate milk.

“It’s really good,” José said. After eating, he went with his mother to pick out a few books.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said he’s interested in seeing how libraries can also serve as community centers, where officials can address broader concerns directly with residents.

“Pairing summer reading programs with nutritious lunches not only is extremely important but is a great pairing so children receive the most benefit,” Wells said.

Benavi came to the Shepherd Park Library with his mother and his two younger siblings Thursday, and the science program was perfect because the soon-to-be first-grader loves the subject.

Victoria Eisenberg said her family makes frequent trips to the library during the summer because her children love to read. Aside from the science program, Benavi is in the library’s kids book club, where he’s in the middle of Brian Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” and is in a summer reading program.

“We come for all the other programs . . . it’s become a ritual,” Victoria Eisenberg said, adding that the lunch was a nice, and good, surprise. “We happened to be here when they were serving lunch, so we stayed.”