More than 20 people clad in clean aprons stood quietly in an elementary school gym in Southeast D.C., surrounded by boxes and bags of both canned and fresh groceries. They listened intently as they received their instructions.
“Please break down the boxes as much as possible. With produce, if you wouldn’t buy it, please do not give it out. Weigh the produce out to about one pound.”
After that was out of the way, the fun started.
“Everybody high-five two people next to you,” said Dillon Babington, a Grocery Market Leader for Martha’s Table, an organization that helps provide food, clothing and educational help to those that need it in Washington, D.C.
On March 3, Babington and a handful of other Martha’s Table employees worked with a group of volunteers to host Turner Elementary School’s first Joyful Market, part of the organization’s Healthy Markets program. All students who attend the school in Southeast D.C. were invited to come “shop” with their families in the gym, gathering up approximately 23 pounds of free food given by Martha’s Table and the Capital Area Food Bank that can be used to make up to 18 meals.
Turner is one of eight new schools from Wards 7 and 8 — which have the District’s highest poverty rates according to the advocacy group D.C. Hunger Solutions — to host Joyful Markets in March. Twenty-two other markets were previously open in elementary schools and community centers around D.C., providing food for more than 3,500 people in the month of January. Martha’s Table hopes the markets will encourage healthy eating in an area where fruits and vegetables aren’t always available.
“When do you get to meet with 100, or 200, or 300 kids and smile with them and talk about carrots?” Babington said.
More than 50 percent of D.C.’s kids under 18 live in Wards 7 and 8, according to a 2014 report from DC Action for Children. Food insecurity in the area east of the Anacostia River is amplified due to a lack of grocery stores.
According to the D.C. government, only three grocery stores exist in Wards 7 and 8. Families that live there have average household incomes of $39,000 per year and $29,000 per year, respectively, according to a 2010 report from D.C Hunger Solutions. There are 11 grocery stores in Ward 3, which is comprised of part the Northwest quadrant that borders Virginia and has an average household income of $128,000 per year.
Efforts to improve the grocery store situation have crumbled in recent months, with Wal-Mart dropping plans to build two stores in Ward 7.
‘HEALTHY, NUTRITIOUS AND DELICIOUS’
Norita Marshall shopped with her granddaughter at the Turner market on Thursday, exclaiming before she even stepped foot through the door.
“This is nice! This is beautiful!”
She made her way around the market, passing a table filled with whole wheat pasta, tomato sauce and beans; baskets of oranges, bananas and apples; and a large spread of carrots, potatoes, broccoli, celery and the “Joyful Food of the Month” — zucchini.
“Broccoli? This is so cool. Fresh, fresh produce,” Marshall said.
Marshall couldn’t ignore the tantalizing smell of garlic filling every corner of the gym. She finally stopped by a table with an electric skillet and some small cups of whole wheat pasta with zucchini and tomato sauce, prepared by Rob Patterson and Joel “Chef Jojo” Thomas, culinary employees of Martha’s Table.
“Healthy, nutritious and delicious” is how Patterson described the dish, which he said helped get kids “excited to go home with fresh food.”
“Oh, I have to try this. I can take one?” Marshall said. “In Jesus name, Amen! I gotta bless it!”
She took a bite (“It’s tasty!”) and asked a volunteer to drop another piece of zucchini into her cup. Marshall acknowledged that it’s hard for people in her ward to find fresh food with so few places to shop, saying she was “pleasantly surprised” by what Martha’s Table had to offer.
“We know that this is one of the wards where there are a lot of people who go hungry, so this is an opportunity to put fresh produce, healthy food in someone’s pantry,” Marshall said. “I think it will be well-received.”
FUN WITH FOOD
Martha’s Table doesn’t just aim to provide much-needed food — the focus on fun extends beyond the market’s volunteers, aimed at the customers themselves. There’s an emphasis on the visual presentation of the market’s produce, with some volunteers shoveling vegetables into attractive wicker baskets while others take the vegetables out of the baskets to place into customers’ bags.
“When you’re not helping someone, please stand behind the table so they can see everything,” Babington told the volunteers.
She said the markets are “a piece of that puzzle” in bringing families together for “quality time and quality food.”
“We want to serve with dignity and compassion,” Babington said.
The chefs take extra care to make sure the kids are enjoying the market. Patterson mostly leaves Thomas to man the electric skillet so he can engage with the pint-sized shoppers. He often jumps around with kids in the middle of the gym, and occasionally tends a table where kids are learning to make zucchini ribbons in a vinaigrette dressing.
“Uh oh!” he gasped as the ribbon made by Marshall’s granddaughter broke apart. She giggled, eyes wide.
When Patterson does join Thomas, they both bounce to the beats of Beyoncé and Ariana Grande blasting through the gym’s speakers. They encourage the kids to get louder than the music.
“Alright on the count of three!” Chef Jojo said to a group of kids. “One, two, three…”
“Zucchini!” the kids all screamed, giggling and grabbing cups of the pasta.
Babington said the markets are a learning experience for Martha’s Table, which conducted research at the Turner market to see what the biggest needs are in the community.
“We are trying to expand [the program] smartly,” Babington said, noting Martha’s Table wants to open even more markets in the future.
“There’s just as equally big an emphasis and effort on doing it smart and doing it right,” Babington said.
A full schedule for the Healthy Markets program can be found at Martha’s Table’s website.