Oasis in the food desert: School-based markets address food insecurity, healthy eating

July 5, 2022 | In DC's food desert, bringing markets to the masses (WTOP's Rachel Nania)

WASHINGTON As soon as I walk through the doors of Democracy Prep, the smell of sauteed garlic and onion hits my nose and leaves my stomach wishing I’d packed more than a yogurt for lunch.

It’s 4 p.m. on a Thursday, and despite the bell signaling the end of the day, a number of students, teachers and parents collect in the cafeteria of the Ward 8 elementary school.

Silento’s “Watch Me” is playing from a small speaker in the back of the room where a crowd is gathered around a long table, equipped with a few cutting boards and a portable burner.

“When I ask you guys a question, you guys are going to say, ‘Yes, chef.’ Alright? Is everybody clear?” the man behind the table says to a group of eight kids in front of him.

“Yes, chef,” they reply.

He adjusts his black New York Yankees hat and gets to work.

“This is kale,” he starts.

There are no groans, gags or “yucks.” Joel Thomas (aka: Chef Jojo) has their full attention.

In an area where access to healthy food is limited (there are currently three full-service grocery stores serving 150,000 people east of the Anacostia River) and rates of diabetes and obesity are higher than other parts of the city, Martha’s Table is testing an idea.

If healthy food was a) more accessible to families and b) presented in a fun and engaging way that encouraged children to eat more fruits and vegetables, could the nonprofit move the needle on both food insecurity and healthy eating?

It turns out, the answer is yes.

“People continue to say that access to healthy food continues to be one of the big challenges,” said Caron Gremont, director of healthy eating at Martha’s Table. “A lot say, ‘If I had a car, I could go to Maryland or Virginia or somewhere, but I don’t so it’s hard to get there.’”

Instead of making people go to the store, Martha’s Table is bringing the store to the people. In January 2015, Gremont and her team launched four Joyful Food Markets in four different elementary schools in Wards 7 and 8.

Each month after school lets out, students and parents can shop for shelf-stable grocery items, such as peanut butter, chickpeas and pasta, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables — all for free.

Upon entering, attendees are given an empty grocery bag and a shopping list of what’s available. There are also chef demos, samples and recipes that make use of what’s available at the market.

(The afternoon I stopped by, Chef Jojo was teaching market-goers how to make a massaged kale salad; his colleague was cooking lo mein made with broccoli, green beans, kale, oranges and whole wheat spaghetti the source of the mouthwatering aroma floating through the school.)

“The idea was to go to elementary schools because we know that young children are still open to eating new fruits and vegetables at this age, and also the parents are really involved,” said Gremont, who adds that the markets are meant to be fun — more like a community event.

“You see the parents standing at the tasting table with their phones, taking pictures of their kids helping and really having fun with their kids too.”

By September 2016, there were Joyful Food Markets in 29 schools. Gremont says the goal is to be in all 49 elementary public, charter and parochial schools in Wards 7 and 8 by 2018. The food available at the markets comes from the Capital Area Food Bank, a partner of Martha’s Table. There are also grants and donations that keep the program going.

Implementing a school-based market is not a new project for Martha’s Table. In 2011, the organization started hosting free food markets in elementary schools in other parts of the city. Gremont says the Joyful Food Markets are specific to schools east of the Anacostia River an area that’s labeled a food desert.

Hopefully, that designation is changing.

Data collected by Martha’s Table from pre- and post-surveys, in-depth interviews and case studies show that the Joyful Food Markets are helping to move that needle when it comes to food insecurity.

“Before coming to a Joyful Food Market, 74 percent of families reported that they ran out of food at least once or twice a month, before visiting the market. When we did our post-surveys, that number dropped significantly to 29.5 percent,” said Gremont, adding that the markets service about 6,000 children and families each month.

Sixty percent of families reported eating fruits and vegetables after visiting a Joyful Food Market, compared to 29.5 percent beforehand, the data shows. 

“So we were able to see that these monthly pop-up markets really helped families get access to fresh, high-quality food.”

In addition to helping area families get the food they need, Gremont hopes the school-based markets bring much-needed attention to a critical issue — both in D.C. and throughout the country.

“I think there is growing pressure from us and others around the city to say that access to healthy food is really a right that everyone should have, and that we as a country and a city have an obligation to make sure that everyone has access to healthy food,” she said.

“This can be a model that other cities can replicate as a way to not just improve access to healthy food, but to really bring joy.”  

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