How Joyful Markets Are Feeding Kids And Teaching Lessons

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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.

WHERE HELP IS NEEDED MOST

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.”

Norita Marshall walks with her granddaughter after visiting a station at the Turner Elementary Joyful Market. (Photo by Paige Lavender)

Norita Marshall walks with her granddaughter after visiting a station at the Turner Elementary Joyful Market. (Photo by Paige Lavender)

“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.

LEARNING MORE

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.

McKenna’s Wagon Volunteer Brings Warmth During Chilly Weather

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A man donning several worn jackets and a thick knit cap hunched over the handlebars of his bike to peek inside the back of a white van.

His shaking hand held a cardboard container of beans and rice, still steaming after being scooped out of a large metal pan resting on a plastic fold-out table. He lifted the box to his nose, taking a deep breath before letting out an “mmm.”

“Do you have any more?”

“We have some in another tray,” Arielle Melcher told him as she whipped open one of two red containers containing more of the Mexican-inspired dish. As she piled food into a second container, the man gingerly closed up the first box, settling it neatly into the basket of his bike.

Arielle Melcher stands ready to serve a hot meal of beans and rice to anyone that stops by McKenna's Wagon. (Paige Lavender/American University)

Arielle Melcher stands ready to serve a hot meal of beans and rice to anyone that stops by McKenna’s Wagon. (Paige Lavender/American University)

Melcher is a regular volunteer for Martha’s Table, an organization that helps provide food, clothing and educational help to those that need it in Washington, D.C. On this chilly night in February, Melcher was helping with McKenna’s Wagon, the mobile food truck that leaves Martha’s table 365 days a year to take food to the hungry around the city.

The truck “went out during the snowstorm while you couldn’t even see,” Jon Squicciarini, Development Associate at Martha’s Table, said of McKenna’s Wagon.

Now a 17-year-old senior at The Academy of the Holy Cross, Melcher initially started volunteering at Martha’s Outfitters thrift store to earn service hours for school. Melcher, whose black leggings tuck into mismatched socks and green Doc Martens, called that job “mind-numbingly boring,” noting her preference for McKenna’s Wagon.

Melcher was one of 16,000 Martha’s Table volunteers in 2015, according to Francisca Alba, the organization’s Assistant Director of Volunteer Engagement. Alba said McKenna’s Wagon is usually set on help, but there’s “desperate need” for volunteers elsewhere, like with the organization’s Healthy Markets initiative.

Melcher normally helps with McKenna’s Wagon on Mondays, but missed this week because she’d been away visiting the University of Maine, a school “in the middle of nowhere” she hopes to attend after graduating. After another volunteer canceled due to snowy weather, Alba had texted Melcher — who’s completed 225 hours of community service on McKenna’s Wagon alone — to work.

“I was not like that in high school,” Alba said with a chuckle.

Melcher, after arriving at Martha’s Table’s 14th Street headquarters and throwing a green apron adorned with the organization’s logo on over her green army jacket, hopped into a van with Lou Boero, who’s been volunteering at Martha’s Table on-and-off for the last 25 years.

Boero, who works in financial planning but calls himself “80 percent retired,” always drives on Tuesdays. He knows the route to the truck’s first stop by the World Bank so well that as he drives down Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House growing bigger by the second, he can’t seem to remember exactly where he’s going.

“I’ve done this for so many years I can’t tell you the cross streets,” Boero said, finally recalling his destination at 20th and Pennsylvania NW.

As they weave their way to their first stop, Melcher readied grocery bags to be filled with fruit and sandwiches.

“Sounds like you’d like to do the hot. Would you like to do the hot?” Boero said, giving Melcher the option of dishing out the warm meal.

“Sure,” Melcher replied as she straightened out more plastic grocery bags and took inventory of the food: meat sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas, beans and rice, water and tea.

The operation is quick, aided at the first stop by Lance, a man who lives in a tent nearby. Lance helped ready the bags of sandwiches while Melcher and Boero set up two tables, one for the hot food and one for tea and water.

Lou Boero gathers peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to give to the hungry at McPherson Square. (Paige Lavender/American University)

Lou Boero gathers peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to give to the hungry at McPherson Square. (Paige Lavender/American University)

“Thank you! God bless you! For those of you in school, keep your grades up! Keep praying! Have a blessed day!” Lance shouted at anyone who passed by, whether by foot, bike or car.

“First time, first time,” a man murmured as he walked up to Melcher’s station, a sharp contrast to Lance’s bombastic personality. He quietly thanked Melcher after receiving a container of the beans and rice, making his way to Boero to get sandwiches he could save for later.

“No meat?” another man said. “Nah. If there’s no meat in it, I don’t want it.”

After seeing another man scrunch his face up at the sight of carrots, Melcher delicately moved her metal spoon through the Mexican mixture, serving up two containers of food with slightly less orange. She made small talk with another man who inquired if the blue streaks in her hair had been dyed with product bought at CVS.

McKenna's Wagon sits at 15th and K NW, a short walk from the White House.

McKenna’s Wagon sits at 15th and K NW, a short walk from the White House.

After about 30 minutes and 20 people served, Melcher and Boero packed up the van and drove over to McPherson Square for their second and final stop at the night. Again they readied their spread, this time serving almost 40 people at a spot just three minutes from the White House.

By the end of the hour, the air had cooled considerably, and so had the food. Melcher scraped the last bits out of her metal bin, which was now sitting in the bed of the truck, ready to be packed up.

The emptiness of the containers echoed through McKenna’s Wagon as it made its way back to 14th Street, the low whoosh of liquids rocking back and forth and a hollow banging filling the vehicle.

Melcher didn’t look back on the night, only forward. She’d be back again, serving those same familiar faces and many new ones, likely on her usual Mondays.

For information on how to volunteer at Martha’s Table, go here.