Patty Stonesifer is president and chief executive of Martha’s Table.
Families everywhere struggle with impossible choices when it comes to feeding their children. Parents wonder: Can I find something fast and healthful at the corner store, since the supermarket is two bus rides away? Are my children sufficiently nourished? And, heartbreakingly: Will they notice if I skip dinner so I can feed them?
These are questions no parent should have to ask.
Nationwide, roughly 13 million children are food insecure, living without reliable access to affordable, nutritious food to nourish their bodies and minds. In the District, food insecurity affects more than 1 in 4 children, many in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Parents feel the pressure from housing and child-care costs. They piece together part-time jobs or work full-time for low wages. In this messy confluence of economic pressures, hunger and food insecurity are widespread.
Kim, a working mother of three children, lives around the corner from Martha’s Table. She wants to give her children the best life possible, and she acts accordingly. When she ends the month with a surplus of money, she buys food to freeze. Last year, her goal was to have the freezer full by winter so that if surprise expenses occurred, she could turn to it to feed her family. But in autumn, her youngest son was injured on the playground. An ambulance ride and an emergency room bill later, Kim was in a familiar situation: scrambling to pay unexpected expenses while trying to put food on the table for her family.
By December, her freezer was bare except for a single, months-old chicken.
For years, researchers and politicians have struggled to find solutions to Kim’s dilemma and to untangle another knot. Food insecurity, obesity and poor nutrition are tightly entwined because our cheapest foods usually are highly processed, heavily subsidized by federal funds and readily available at corner stores and carry-outs, which flourish in under-resourced neighborhoods. In Ward 8, for example, almost 80,000 people rely on a single full-service grocery store. And the quality items at that store come at a high cost. So telling people to eat more fruits and vegetables does not work if the fruits and vegetables are unaffordable or unavailable.
In vulnerable communities, healthful-eating education must go hand in hand with healthful-food access. Because our goal is big: to eliminate hunger and food insecurity, and begin the journey toward healthful eating. For that to happen, two additional things are required: joy and community buy-in.
Since 2015, Martha’s Table and Capital Area Food Bank have operated monthly no-cost pop-up food markets directly in elementary schools east of the Anacostia River where hunger is high and access to healthful food is scarce. Joyful Food Markets start when school ends. There, with 20 volunteers helping, families select healthful groceries and fresh produce. Martha’s Table’s chefs, including Chef JoJo, cook tasty meals using ingredients from the market. The children chop, sample and play with their food. They make kale chips, taste squash and even brine pickles.
There are no waiting lists or the bureaucratic red tape that can create confusion or restrict access. If your family includes one of the more than 11,000 children in these 29 schools, you are welcome at the Joyful Market.
While we measure success in more than a dozen ways, two stand out: Families accessing our monthly markets reported that hunger was dramatically down, from 70 percent to 26 percent, and weekly nights of healthful eating, defined as having vegetables served at dinner at least five nights per week, shot up to 60 percent from 36 percent.
By 2018, with continued support from local government and donors, we plan to have Joyful Food Markets in all 49 elementary schools east of the river, where carry-outs drastically outnumber grocery stores and where income is disproportionately lower.
Still we know that a few days a month of healthful, free food isn’t a solution. Three broader things must change. The D.C. Council must continue to make children’s health and nutrition a funding priority, regarded as equally important as education and an important part of education outcomes.
Also, we must ensure that food programs receive public and private support to move quickly to an evidence-based standard and commit to distributing only healthful foods, since hunger and health must be addressed in tandem to ensure lasting success.
And we must come together to encourage private food producers, grocers and restaurateurs to plow energy and innovation into ensuring quality food access in all of our neighborhoods.
We certainly welcome and applaud all who give generously to tackle hunger this holiday season, but we must also remember the children and families who lack sufficient access to healthful food all year long.