Vegetables at a D.C. farmer’s market. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

The market’s ripe melons, zucchini and ears of corn drew about 300 families who waited in a line stretching down the block from the King Greenleaf Recreation Center to receive their fresh produce on a recent Tuesday.

The fruits and vegetables are normally an expensive indulgence in the Southwest Washington neighborhood surrounding the center, but at Martha’s Table’s summer markets, they are free. It is the longtime D.C. charity’s latest initiative to provide low-
income families with a bevy of produce and meal ideas, offered up with a casual farmers market feel, picking out veggies while music plays in the warm breeze.

“A whole lot of families usually get food stamps for the month,” said Ada Marshall, picking out produce with her grandchildren, four-year-old twins. “You have to make sure to have food all month long. You look at this sale and that sale. Every little bit counts, and this helps a whole lot.”

The 20 markets, which began for the first time in July, will pop up in underserved areas throughout the District up to four days a week until the end of August.

Robin McKinney was browsing the selection for her seven children and grandchild. The amount they can take is based on family size and their choice of items. Most of the free food is provided by Capital Area Food Bank donations and supplemented by Martha’s Table.

“This is very, very needed in our neighborhood,” McKinney said. “When you see the food, organic or fresh the way it is here, it’s expensive. The cheapest thing you may get is maybe the corn and bananas, but everything else — we can’t afford it.”

Because many can’t afford it, healthy food is swapped for cheaper and more fattening foods, said Caron Gremont, the charity’s senior director of healthy eating. It also means, she said, that the families are less likely to shop at farmers markets, learning about new produce or healthy recipe ideas.

“We are really focused on access,” Gremont said. “It is about getting healthy food in the hands of people who need it, without the worry that can come along with it.”

The charity is not alone in its effort to bring farm-fresh food to needy families. The District and neighboring counties have seen a steady increase in farmers markets accepting federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program assistance, according to District data. In 2004, only 23 markets in the District, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties accepted WIC; by 2014 that number had nearly tripled to 60.

To encourage that kind of shopping, the charity is using a choice model at its markets.

“We don’t want to just tell them what they can have,” Gremont said. “People can choose what they want, so they get what they like, but also to create a dignified experience.”

Families taste sample dishes made with the ingredients at the market as they move through the line of food options. Culinary educator Joel Thomas, known as “Chef Jojo” to the children, whipped up a salsa using sweet corn, black beans and tomatoes from the market.

“A lot of these folks like Chipotle, and this is a way to make that kind of taste at home,” Thomas said. “If you start from something familiar, they can learn by building off of that.”

“Sometimes, they will pass up a food because they haven’t really tried it or don’t know how to cook it,” Gremont said. “After they try the sample, they usually go back and get what they skipped. Now they like it and know how to use it.”

Martha’s Table, targeting food instability, has previously focused on feeding children by providing families at certain schools with a bundle of food to supplement meals throughout the school year.

At the school markets, Thomas teaches kids about nutrition and introduces them to new flavors. Although the school year ends, the need for healthy food doesn’t, and the situation can be made worse for families losing school-provided lunches.

McKinney’s children have participated in Thomas’s classes at school, learning cooking basics.

“They learned how to saute food so that it gives it a different kind of taste, but it is still good for you,” McKinney said. “You don’t cook all the good part out.”

Some of her children don’t like certain foods, such as onions, beans and peas, but Thomas’s tips on how to incorporate the foods into meals are expanding their palates.

“Now that we can add more color and different types of flavor of vegetables, they love it,” she said.

The markets are an extension of that work, reaching families in their communities, popping up under white tents outside of schools and community centers.

“I didn’t even think we could get Martha’s Table down here,” Marshall said. Neighbors on their way to the market told her about the charity event down the street from where she was chatting on her porch.

“People have been telling each other they are here,” she said. “I had no idea they would have music, samples, fruit for the kids and a nice breeze. It’s got a really nice feel.”

After waiting on line, Marshall talked with neighbors, while keeping her grandchildren from gobbling up the fruit they happily toted around.

“We don’t really like lines,” Gremont said. “It shows such a great need here, but having everyone come together and feel like it is a community event makes the experience and food they pick up all the more enjoyable.”