A Joyful Food Market volunteer distributes produce at Neval Thomas Elementary
Cassidy Jensen

On a Wednesday afternoon at Neval Thomas Elementary School, parents moved slowly through the school’s gym, chatting with other families while their children sprinted around the room laughing and dancing to pop music that blasted from a nearby speaker. One toddler bobbed happily up and down while munching on an Oreo. This is a Joyful Food Market, one of 29 pop-up markets in Wards 7 and 8 where children and their families receive free healthy produce and pantry staples, while learning about healthy eating practices.

Joyful Food Markets, a joint project of Capital Area Food Bank and Martha’s Table, aims to increase access to nutritious food for low-income children through lively community events. Ward 7 currently has only one grocery store serving every 35,000 residents and Ward 8 has one grocery store for every 79,000 residents, according to testimony from D.C. Hunger Solutions director Beverly Wheeler at a D.C. Council meeting.

The market at Neval Thomas Elementary School in Ward 7 was one of the first established in 2015, according to Market Leader Jemila Morrison, who coordinates markets, supervises volunteers, and today is acting as a DJ. On Oct. 26, volunteers gave out that month’s four seasonal vegetables: squash, collard greens, sweet potatoes and cabbage. Parents also picked up fruits and nonperishables like tuna, beans and applesauce.

In the middle of the room, Chef JoJo handed out sample of today’s recipe, whole-wheat pasta with collard greens and butternut squash, while kids made their own apple cabbage slaw. A young boy proudly announced to his grandmother, “I’m doing an activity!” as he carefully chopped ingredients.

Shawnata James has attended the Neval Thomas Elementary market for a few months, since her 3-year-old son started attending the nearby EDUCARE early childhood school. She appreciates the recipes. “I didn’t know I could make pasta with these things,” she said. She exchanged her extra sweet potato for a butternut squash after trying the day’s dish.

Nicole R. attended October’s market with two of her four children. “It definitely helps, especially at the end of the month,” she said of the free healthy food. “I like how it brings the community together and everyone seems to enjoy themselves here and sometimes they have new recipes.” Morrison said many of the same families tend to return each month after finding out about the market through word of mouth.

At Joyful Food Markets, families receive 23 pounds of food for each enrolled child. According to data collected by Martha’s Table, the number of families that reported food insecurity, or not having the money to buy needed food within the previous month, has decreased more than two-fold after visiting a Joyful Food Market. Vegetable consumption has also increased, with 60 percent of families reporting eating vegetables five days a week — up from 36.5 percent before families attended the pop-up markets. This data comes from surveys of 512 Joyful Food Market participants, about 40 percent of total enrollment in the program. These changes were observed between a study conducted in March 2015 and a follow-up in June 2016. Researchers also conducted interviews and case studies of select participants. In the 2015-16 school year Joyful Food Markets provided over 24,000 people with 550,000 pounds of nutritious food, according to the Martha’s Table’s website.

At some markets, residents from the D.C. Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics offer medical advice and promote healthy habits through interactive activities like brain games and demonstrations about sugar.

There are additional markets, called “Martha’s Markets,” run in elementary schools and in both The Fort Stanton Recreation Center and the Rita Bright Family and Youth Center, which are open to the public once a month. Martha’s Table also offers a free mini-market at their main location, 2214 14th St NW, open every day from 10 p.m. to 5 p.m. Shoppers can obtain food there once every 30 days.

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All the pop-up markets are staffed by volunteers. Groups can sign up to “adopt” a market by volunteering at a particular site each month. According to Morrison, maintaining a stable force of volunteers has been a problem at the markets. By 2018, these markets will be available at all 49 elementary schools east of the Anacostia River. However, according to Morrison, new markets will not be added until fall of 2017, while Martha’s Table works on perfecting the program.

Outside of the Joyful Food Markets initiative, Martha’s Table distributes food daily at 4pm outside their main location, including hot meals, fruit and sandwiches. Their mobile food truck program, McKenna’s Wagon, also provides hot meals every day of the year from 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. at 2nd and H St. NW, 5:20 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. at Pennsylvania Ave and 19th Street NW, and 6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at 15th and K St NW.