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Creating a veggie oasis in the food desert

Volunteer group helps low-income families cel... 01:30

Twelve-year-old Keith Williams grabs two bags of green beans for his grandmother to cook, but he's also curious about kale, which he's never tried. He slowly lifts a plastic spoonful of the sauteed green to his mouth and chews. How is it? "Good," he says with a smile, as he reaches for another bite.

Martha's Table, a Washington, D.C.-based volunteer organization, has been setting up free fresh produce markets on a monthly basis in the gym at Keith's school, the Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Southwest Washington since 2011. The project started with a Target Corporation "Meals for Minds" grant. With additional grants and local support, Martha's Table now hosts these healthy pop-up markets at 10 elementary schools in the District's 7th and 8th Wards -- two of the poorest sections of the nation's capital -- where 60 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. As the number of markets increased, the organization committed to increasing the amount of fresh food they serve from 25 to 40 percent.

Nationwide, urban Americans who qualify for federal food assistance programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) are less likely to use the program than those who qualify in rural areas. Martha's Table seeks to change this in urban areas. They're bringing fresh produce to the schools, instead of relying on poor urban parents to go from their homes to grocery stores, which are often inconveniently located.

"It is easier to do a pop-up market where they are, to meet them where they are, to meet them exactly where the need is," says Afiya Howell who is a food educator at Martha's Table. Howell graduated from Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh and went on to work at Ruth's Chris and a number of other hotel restaurants before landing at Martha's Table. She recognizes the importance of using quality ingredients to encourage kids to eat better and, being from the Washington, D.C.-Maryland area, Howell also knows there is a dearth of fresh food in the homes of low-income families in this area.

"When these families look for healthy food it isn't always easy to find," Howell explains. Only four of the 43 full-service grocery stores in Washington, D.C. are located in Wards 7 and 8. By bringing healthy food to the schools, Martha's Table is trying to create oases in areas often referred to as a "food deserts," where nutritious, affordable food is hard to access. That lack of access often makes it too easy to turn to cheaper, less healthy alternatives.

"Vegetables are more expensive than snacks," says Keith's mother, Kiara Williams, a single mother of two with a food budget of $300-400 a month.

Like her son, Williams likes the vegetables she tries at the market. Hovering over a steaming saucepan, Joel Thomas -- known here as "Chef Jojo" -- sautes vegetables, sprinkles them with salt and pepper and fills the elementary school gym with the scent of cooking garlic. Cooking demonstrations and the recipe leaflets that Martha's Table hands out show the families how to use the food they are given.

"It is good for people like me who can't cook," says Williams, who is excited to cook the kale for Thanksgiving. Her improving culinary skills are a hopeful sign that her children might develop a love for healthy food.

"We really want to make sure we can serve young children and their parents in hopes that we have children who adopt healthier lifestyles as they continue to grow," explains Martin Booker, Director of the Food and Nutrition Program at Martha's Table, who has been working on the program since its inception three years ago.

The Martha's Table in-school markets are part of a growing nationwide effort. The USDA initiated a Farm-to-School Census in 2013 and found that 44 percent of school districts across the country are also developing some type of farm-to-school initiatives. Booker envisions Martha's Table engaging with other local nutrition entities, like schools and other non-profits, in an effort to streamline the messages that the students are receiving about nutrition.

"How many messages can the kids take in in a day? Let's give them the same messages all month, something that will really stick. I think it could prove very successful if we are all talking the same language," Booker explains. "Kale could be the talk of the town!"

The organization's long-term ambition is to host healthy pop-up markets in all of the public and charter elementary schools in the District's 7th and 8th wards by 2016. Patty Stonesifer, former CEO of the Gates Foundation and senior vice president at Microsoft, traded one Washington for another to take over as president of Martha's Table, and she's heading up the effort. She has a long history of taking a "wide view to see changes in trends and systems" and she is also eager to measure the markets' impact.

"We are hoping for three measures of change -- a great reduction in hunger in these young families, an increase in the love of healthy foods and healthy nutrition knowledge and practices, and a stretch goal for us is that hopefully, down the line, we see these new habits help to support improved health," Stonesifer told CBS News.

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