Speaking Through Need

And how our community partners are addressing the disparity

By Grace Boone

  GRACE BOONE IS AN AMERICORPS VISTA SERVING IN TURNER ELEMENTARY THROUGH THE GWU/DCPS PARTNERSHIP.

GRACE BOONE IS AN AMERICORPS VISTA SERVING IN TURNER ELEMENTARY THROUGH THE GWU/DCPS PARTNERSHIP.

Turner Elementary School is located in the historic Congress Heights neighborhood in Ward 8, the oldest and most economically disadvantaged ward in Washington DC. The evidence is overwhelming: communities “east of the river” have lower incomes, education levels, life expectancy, quality of life, and the list goes on. Why, you may ask? Gentrification, loss of cultural identity, economic factors, neighborhood disinvestment, systemic injustice, and inequitable distribution of resources are just a few contributing factors. I want to focus briefly on systemic injustice and unequal opportunity.

When I was first interviewed for the VISTA Community Liaison position at Turner, Principal Bethel spoke passionately of the needs at the school, “99% of our students receive free lunches, 90% of our families are on TANF.” Although Turner is committed to academic excellence, to extra-curricular success, in order to get to academic success, we must also be motivated to defeat systemic injustice with our students everyday; to defeat the statistics that African-Americans are more likely to have a teen pregnancy, less likely to graduate from high school, etc. Our community partners help make student success in school and in life a reality. This holistic approach to education is how we stay true to our school slogan: committed to excellence.

A part of the systemic injustice that is playing out in Ward 8 is the lack of access to affordable, healthy foods. Serving as home to over 70,000 residents, the southernmost ward has the fewest number of grocery stores in the district. There are only two, to be exact. There is not enough access to affordable, healthy foods to sustain the population. Much of Ward 8 is a “food desert,”  an urban area in which there is little or no access to affordable or good-quality fresh food.

There are a lot of negative health effects that can occur to a community as a result of a food desert. Heart disease and high blood pressure result from unhealthy eating. They are the leading cause of death in the United States. African-Americans are two times more likely to die as a result of heart disease and high blood pressure than the Caucasian population. There is also a higher rate of obesity and diabetes in food deserts than other areas, mostly affecting African-Americans. Read more about food disparity in Ward 8 here.

Martha’s Table is an organization that aims to strengthen communities through “quality education programs, healthy food, and family supports.” Joyful Markets is a part of their Healthy Eating Initiative. Every month Turner Elementary School, as well as 30 other schools in the district, participates in a Joyful Market which brings an open food market to our school gym. This open market is full of healthy, fresh fruits, vegetables, and other wholesome products like beans and pasta. Each student at Turner is eligible to receive any of the foods, and they can shop for a bag of food, often weighing up to 25 pounds a student! Oh, and the best part? Everything is free!

Joyful Markets is deemed “joyful” for a reason. When family members and students walk into the gym they are greeted with red table cloths, family-friendly music, and volunteers who walk with them through each table of fresh food. There is also a chef who attends every market. The chef has a table in the middle of the gym and cooks up a delicious recipe with all the ingredients found in that month’s market, encouraging families to use the ingredients and take them home. In the Junior Chef section, children are able to hang out, make simple recipes, and learn how rewarding cooking can be.

Joyful Markets is an example of an initiative from an organization fighting systemic injustice in a very real way. They provide families with free healthy food in an area that lacks those resources. But they go beyond providing free food to working with families to address long term health through healthy eating and community-building. If you would like to be a part of the movement at Turner, please contact me at grace.boone@dc.gov. We would love to have you serve with us as a part of the partnership between GW and Turner. We would love to have you learn more about the beautiful Turner community.