On market days at Main Avenue Elementary, students are sent to the playground one grade at a time, marching in single file across the busy blacktop toward a colorful spread of apples, potatoes, onions, carrots and oranges. Their backpacks are unzipped and worn in reverse to better hold the fruits of their shopping spree.
On Thursday, 8-year-old Ryan Davis, wearing a straw hat and gloves, waited to help distribute the food to the other children.
“These are carrots – they help you see in the dark, like Batman,” Davis told a schoolmate while taking play money in exchange for a bundle of orange veggies.
With the aid of a dozen helpers such as Davis, Main Avenue Elementary gives out roughly 3,000 pounds of fresh produce to the school’s 330 students each month as part of a simulation farmers market launched in March. Held at recess, the market provides hearty amounts of much-needed healthy food, as well as important nutritional information, to a low-income North Sacramento neighborhood where many would otherwise go without.
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“What this is, is just a food distribution disguised as a nutrition education activity,” said Erica Lee, program administrator with the nonprofit Health Education Council, which helps run the program. “Coming out here and getting these fresh fruits and vegetables in the hands of these kids, to go home and get excited and share that excitement with their families, is really what this is all about.”
The market is a collaboration between the council, Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services and the Robla School District, where 93 percent of students receive free or reduced school meals. Main Avenue, a K-6 school made up largely of Latino and Asian students, is a pilot location for what organizers hope will become a districtwide program.
The entire Robla district sits in what city officials call a food desert lacking access to affordable, fresh food. In February, the neighborhood welcomed a Viva Supermarket, the first major food retailer to open there in two decades.
For the most part, Robla families get their food at convenience stores and fast food restaurants, said district Superintendent Ruben Reyes. The 95838 ZIP code that includes Main Avenue Elementary ranks among the highest countywide for diabetes, heart disease and other conditions affected by diet, according to recent Sacramento County health reports.
“These kids don’t have access to everything we want them to have access to,” Reyes said. “Even though our main focus is to teach them to read and write, taking care of the whole child is also our responsibility.”
Each child at the Main Avenue market goes home with somewhere between 5 and 10 pounds of food, said Ray Dowler, community produce distribution coordinator for the food bank. That helps families put dinner on the table, he said, and empowers both kids and the adults to make healthy choices.
Anything to make them feel proactive, make them feel good about their situation, is a great thing.
Ray Dowler, community produce distribution coordinator for the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services
“Anything to make them feel proactive, make them feel good about their situation, is a great thing,” he said. “It’s up to us to get the food and the information out to people.”
Since 2012, the kids farmers market concept has already been implemented in Yolo County, where five elementary schools and one preschool run weekly markets that look a lot like the one at Main Avenue.
Those programs serve about 875 students per week. A new preschool market will begin in Knight’s Landing next year, said Linda Zablotny-Hurst, director of development for the Yolo Food Bank.
“It’s been very successful,” she said. “A lot of kids are now asking their moms and dads to cook certain foods. Them bringing it home from the market, being invested in acquiring the food, and then wanting to cook it. ... it’s a win-win.”
Desiré Aceves, a mother who attended the Main Avenue market Thursday, said her 5-year-old daughter Irene has taken more interest in what she eats ever since the program launched. Last month, the family made potato tacos using the ingredients Irene brought home from school.
“She takes more pride in it if she picks it out when she’s not with me,” Aceves said. “At that age they’re very picky, but she’s really excited about carrots.”