WASHINGTON, MAY 12, 2012 – Living on $1.50 a day for 5 days was not easy. But I have to say my husband and I both learned a lot. I don’t think that I will ever pick up an organic fruit or vegetable again without stopping to consider the price. Not that I have anything against organic, but now I have a new awareness about what I am paying for my food.
What has made the biggest impact on me has been the realization of how wasteful I am. The seven different kinds of tea that I had stuffed in my pantry made me cringe every time I thought about them during my caffeine-depraved experiment. Even though I raised almost $570 for UNICEF this week, it made me want to do more and learn more about the problem of poverty in DC.
Yesterday I rode my bike down to Martha’s Table, and I am so glad that I did. This was the perfect end to my week trying to understand the need in our area and how we can make a difference.
Martha’s Table’s Quick Facts sheet urges everyone to come down for a visit. It doesn’t ask you to make an appointment or come at a specific time; it just says “our doors are open daily.” So I took them up on their offer and walked in at 3 p.m. on a Thursday and asked if I could learn a bit more about the organization and have a look around.
To my surprise the receptionist smiled and said someone would be with me in a minute. A few seconds later in came Kimberly Lyons-Briley, Assistant Director of Development, who I kept calling Kam the whole time – sorry Kim! —to give me a tour.
The first thing you feel when you walk into Martha’s Table is a real sense of community. The place has a buzz about it, everyone is working and it feels alive. Music plays softly in the background. I immediately like the place and feel at ease.
Martha’s is a happy place. You see it everywhere. The ease with which employees and neighbors greet each other like old friends, the smiling 6-year-olds as they filed up the stairs saying their hellos to the staff.
Martha’s Table has been working in the Columbia Heights/ Shaw area since 1980. It has grown organically to meet the unique needs of the neighborhood and has evolved accordingly. Their buildings take up almost the entire block of 14th street.
As we walked into the kitchen, Kim explained that Martha’s Table operates three main programs: a Food Program, Child and Youth Educational Programs, and Martha’s Outfitters, their thrift shop. The kitchen staff and volunteers were getting ready to prep for the next meal and the meals that would be going on McKenna’s Wagon, the mobile soup kitchen.
Justin Peregoy, the Manager of Prepared Foods at Martha’s Table, oversees McKenna’s Wagon, and provides food for all of the children in the educational and day care programs. Peregoy explained that the food programs at Martha’s run mostly on donations from restaurants and individuals; Martha’s receives around $1,000,000 in donated food per year.
McKenna’s Wagon is a mobile soup kitchen that operates 365 days a year, rain, sleet, or snow. It focuses primarily on the chronically homeless and makes three stops in the city starting at five pm. The wagon serves around 400 warm meals per night, consisting of soup and sandwiches. Peregoy says that they try to make the food they send out on the wagon as nutritious as possible.
Peregoy is also in charge of making the meals for the 250-300 children that attend Martha’s every Monday through Friday. The kitchen prepares breakfast, lunch, a snack, and dinner for the children in the programs. Kim explained that besides trying to provide the children with a healthy and nutritious meal, they also try to educate the children on healthy eating habits. The kitchen tries to include protein, vegetables, fruit and whole milk as part of the children’s every day diet.
Martha’s Pantry bag program distributes around 750 pantry bags every month. The bags are filled with nonperishable food items and perishables when available. This is an invaluable service to the neediest families and individuals in the area. According to Martha’s website, demand for pantry bags has quadrupled since 2007.
The next stop on my tour was Martha’s nationally accredited fully bilingual Child Development Center for children ages 3 months to 4 years. This is another priceless service that Martha’s provides to the community. For parents who cannot afford current day care prices, Martha’s provides these services on a sliding scale based on the family’s income. The program encourages toddlers and preschoolers to explore several aspects of development using a “learn through play” approach aimed at giving them the right tools to succeed personally and academically from the very beginning.
Martha’s Table also offers a nationally accredited After School Program for students 5 to 13, and a college preparatory program for students 14 to 24 years of age. The Programs focus on personal and academic development, working closely with DC schools, mentors, and tutors. For the past several years every single senior in Martha’s Youth Program has graduated high school and the majority have gone on to college. That is impressive, especially considering DC’s high school graduation rate is less than 60%.
Martha’s Outfitters is a neighborhood thrift store with a twist. Besides being one of the best places to find that rare vintage gem from some old society’s queen’s closet, it also provides around 2,000 people with free clothing and house wares every year. All of the proceeds from sales support other Martha’s Table programs.
Leaving Martha’s Table I was amazed at how much this one organization does for our community. I have passed it many times on my bike and in my car in the years that I have lived in DC. I live four blocks away from Martha’s, as a matter of fact. I was aware that they ran a soup kitchen and thrift store but I never really knew all of the programs that have such a positive impact on the community.
Final Thoughts On the Challenge
I am glad I took the challenge. I learned a lot. However, could I have done something more meaningful to help make even a small dent in poverty? Of course I could have.
These last few days have made me want to get involved in my community instead of starving myself (and my husband) just to prove the point that $1.50 per day is not enough. Something else that is not enough was what I was doing.
I realized that places like Martha’s Table keep our communities together and I want to be a part of that.
I have always said I wanted to volunteer, but I never actually got off the couch to do it. So now I have committed to volunteer a few hours a week at Martha’s Table. I’m sure I will have a lot to write about my experience in the weeks and months to come.
There are several ways in which you can get involved at Martha’s Table or give a donation of money, food, clothing, skills or time.
Please visit their website to find out how.
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