Once a month, the activity room at an elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is filled with food—milk, eggs, and stacks of fresh produce. It looks like a farmers market, but many of the shoppers are under the age of 12 and all of the food is free.
One of three free markets at Cambridge elementary schools, the program is a way for families struggling to afford food to get it when they pick up kids at school.
"The markets are set up a little differently than your typical food pantry, where you might enter through the back door, or wait in line outside in the elements," says Alanna Mallon, program director at Food for Free, the local nonprofit that runs the program. "Our food markets are very different in that we have them in a school where parents already are."
It's a place where people aren't embarrassed to be seen getting food. "It's become less of a stigma and more of a community event," she says. "There's music playing. It's just a fun, festive atmosphere."
The market is also open to everyone, not just low-income families. "I think we wanted to normalize the experience," Mallon says. "A lot of times families feel that if it's another program for the poor, they don't want to out themselves as someone who needs the free food."
Mallon, who has two elementary school children herself, originally helped schools launch a "backpack program" a few years ago to help make sure that kids in the reduced-lunch program had something to eat over the weekend. Teachers discreetly place two breakfasts, two lunches, and healthy snacks in the students' backpacks.
The free market was a natural outgrowth of the backpack program. "This is a more selective way for parents to come in and choose foods that they like and foods that they cook with, and be able to bring that home and sort of address family hunger," she says.
Both programs were inspired by similar work that's happening at schools around the country. There's clear evidence that it helps. Though the market is new, the nonprofit has studied the effects of the backpack program at Cambridge schools with annual surveys.
Students are more likely to attend school, less likely to end up in the nurse's office, and less likely to have behavior problems. They're also less likely to hoard food—in the past, hungry students might have stuffed snacks in their backpacks to eat at home rather than eating at school.
"Monday mornings, kids are awake and ready to go," Mallon says. "A lot of times, before the program, kids would come in and feel sluggish, or they wouldn't raise their hands." Families are also more likely to get to know their student's teachers.
"Here in Cambridge, and I'm sure across many other school districts, family engagement is something that they talk about a lot because it's the number one indicator of student academic success," says Mallon. "This is creating a link between school and home that may have sort of far-reaching academic impacts. When we set out to do this program, it was really about feeding kids, it wasn't about engagement. So this has been a really nice byproduct."