OKT Celebrates 2016 Successes

With your support and participation, here’s what OKT accomplished during 2016. We will be releasing our full, formal annual report soon!

greenhouse1Growing food!

OKT grew thousands of organic food starter plants at Blandford Farm. OKT gave away these fruit, vegetable, edible flower and herb plants to households in its residential food gardening program and select school and community gardens.

  • Residential Food Growing. OKT worked with eight households growing food in container and raised bed gardens in their yards, on their decks and patios and even on their window sills. OKT provided containers, composted soil, plants and seeds, basic garden tools and a weekly garden coach visit. In all, OKT residential food growers grew about  2,500 pounds of food.
  • Garden Education. OKT hosted its food growing education series twice. Each series including How to Plan Your Food Garden 1 & 2, Composting, How to Save Seeds and Introduction to Food Justice. Though designed for OKT’s residential food growers, the classes were open to the pubic at no charge. OKT, Baxter Community Center and Urban Roots coordinated growing classes to maximize benefit to community.
  • School Window Gardens. OKT worked with students at Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy, where they grew food in windowsill gardens. All food grown was eaten by the students in healthy snacks or brought home to their families.
  • Community and Agency Gardens. OKT provided organic starter food plants to nine community and agency gardens.

Raising Awareness

OKT raised awareness about food justice and policy issues via its ten-part Food Policy for Food Justice series, website, Facebook and at numerous conferences throughout Michigan and at Grand Rapids-based community and university events.

0211161804Healthy Eating Strategies

Cook, Eat and Talk . OKT’s cooking coaches presented one-session, two-session, four-session and eight-session healthy eating series in partnership with various agencies and for its growers and community.

Women of Color Series

OKT brought in recognized community activists from various Michigan organizations to speak on Being a White Ally — Lila Cabbil and Barbara Roos; Uprooting Racism — Shane Bernardo; Herbal Medicine — Lottie Spady; , Food as Medicine — Adela Nieves; and Diagramming Your Food System — Shakara Taylor.

Southeast Area Farmers’ Market

13882561_1253537447998287_2460462587423020698_nIn 2016, OKT decided to hold both its Friday and Saturday markets at MLK Jr. Park, 900 Fuller St. SE. The park setting brought increased traffic to our market vendors. OKT estimates that 656 patrons visited the market  to generate $8,100 in sales.

  • Vendors: A total of nine vendors sold local, safe produce, cottage foods, crafts and Watkins products. Ninety percent of market vendors were women of color from Grand Rapids southeast neighborhoods.
  • Food Assistance Dollars. The market participated in SNAP, Double Up Food Bucks, Senior Project Fresh, WIC, and a new UCC/OKT program, SEAFM Market Bucks, which provided $1 and $5 coupons good for produce at the market.  One-third of sales were Market Buck purchases.
  • Community Partners.  The market hosted a wide range of community partners who shared their resources with market patrons: Planned Parenthood, The Spoke Folks, Grand Rapids Food Co-op Initiative, Great Start Collaborative,  LINC-Up Soul Food Café, Creative Youth Center, Grand Rapids Fire Department , Voice GR and Healthy Homes.
  • Community Events The Market hosted several fun, family friendly events: Urban Foraging Workshop, Fried Green Tomato Festival, Make Your Own Personal Care Items Workshop, Art at the Market and Greens Cook-off.






What is Food Justice?

fj-treeThis is the second in a series of weekly posts highlighting OKT’s Food Justice series. You can download series handouts here for free.

Food Justice is an idea, a set of principles and something we should all strive to practice. More importantly, Food Justice is a movement and, like most social justice movements, it was born out of the lived experience of people experiencing oppression.

In many ways Food Justice grew out of the Environmental Justice
movement, where communities of color and poor working class people began to realize that their lack of access to healthy and affordable food
was not the result of their own behavior, but of a food system that was
motivated by profit.

It is fashionable for people to talk about how people who are living in
poverty also live in a “food desert.” What they generally mean is that
people don’t live close to a grocery store. Using the term “food desert”
is problematic in many ways. First, a desert is a vibrant eco-system and
not a barren wasteland, as is often associated with the term. Secondly,
identifying neighborhoods as food deserts ignores history and fails to
acknowledge that most of these neighborhoods had small grocery stores, farmers markets, fruit & vegetable stands and lots of backyard gardens. However, economic and political decisions driven by the current industrial food system resulted in neighborhoods being both abandoned and undermined, often resulting in food insecurity.

Therefore, it would be more accurate to say that neighborhoods
experiencing a lack of access to healthy, affordable food are communities experiencing Food Apartheid. Food Apartheid explains that a small number of people (agribusiness) determines the kind of food system that  the masses can access. Like the Apartheid imposed on Black South Africans, Food Apartheid means that few of us have a say in the current food system.

The movement for Food Justice is changing Food Apartheid. Armed
with the notion that everyone has the right to eat healthy, food justice
advocates engage in more locally grown food projects, sharing skills
foodjustice_1on how to grow, prepare and preserve food, while exposing the current food
system’s unjust nature .

The Food Justice Movement is an international movement that is ultimately
fighting for Food Sovereignty, where everyone has say in the kind of food system(s) they want. Food Sovereignty is Food Democracy, where healthy food is a right for everyone―not just for those who can afford it. Here is a list of Food Justice principles that Our Kitchen Table supports and promotes:

  • Food Justice recognizes that the causes of food disparity are the result of
    multiple systems of oppression. To practice food justice we must do the work through an intersectional lens.
  • Food Justice advocates must focus on working with the most marginalized and vulnerable populations:
    communities of color, communities in poverty, immigrants, children, our
    elders, women, people who identify as LGBTQ, those with disabilities and
    people experiencing homelessness.
  • Food Justice require us to work
    towards the elimination of exploitation in our food system, both exploitation of humans and animals.
  • Food Justice demands that we grow food in such a way that preserves
    ecological biodiversity and promotes sustainability in all aspects.
  • Provide resources and skill sharing so that people can be collectively more food self-sufficient.

Eating Healthy Food is a Right! The current global food system must be resisted and dismantled. For more information on ways to practice Food Justice in your community, contact Our Kitchen Table.

Do Black Babies Matter?

imDuring the first year of life, twice as many black babies die in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids (11.9 per thousand) than white babies. In Muskegon, the numbers are even higher. To take a look at why these numbers continue to plague infants born to black women of all socio-economic and educational levels, Partners for a Racism-Free Community sponsored a Nov. 30 program, “A Deeper Look at Racism and Infant Mortality.” Breannah Alexander, director of strategic programs, facilitated the dialogue that featured Cathy Brown, from the YWCA Kalamazoo, and Celeste Sanchez-Lloyd, from Strong Beginnings.

Black babies die at double the rate of white babies across the nation. Michigan ranks 40th in terms of good infant outcomes. However, first generation black babies, i.e. babies born to immigrants just coming here from Africa, have the same infant mortality rate as white babies. This leads to the conclusion that the stress of living day to day in a racist environment is a factor in babies dying.

“This has to do with racism, the stress of not belonging, not feeling welcome,” Alexander said. “It’s everywhere in the US, regardless of income. However, poverty is another stress factor for most African Americans. Poverty is the thing we see first; we understand it. It does have an effect but not the only effect. Being black, regardless of income, doubles the risks for infant mortality and low birth weight.”

The YWCA Kalamazoo and Strong Beginnings, in Kent County, are taking intentional steps to keep more black babies alive. Sanchez-Lloyd noted that Strong Beginnings community health workers empower the families they serve by offering in-home mental health support, family planning guidance, a fatherhood program as well as help with housing, transportation and employment. These strategies not only create a healthier environment for pregnant black women but also help alleviate some of the stressors impacting them. “We are looking to save that baby but also to making an intergenerational change,” she said.


Left to right, Cathy Brown, Celeste Sanchez-Lloyd and Breannah Alexander.

Brown, who works in programs that offer support to victims of domestic violence, notes that black victims who are pregnant face even higher levels of stress. The YWCA Kalamazoo program seeks to meet women where they are at and figure out intentional ways of helping them carry heathy babies to full term.

Both presenters also spoke about the institutional racism pregnant black women face when seeking medical care. Providers routinely ask them about “baby daddies,” illicit drug use or simply assume that the pregnancy was unplanned and that they are not living a healthy lifestyle. Because many black women are using low cost clinic services, they are afraid to report such treatment for fear they may lose all access to medical treatment. Notably, Grand Rapids is the most segregated city in Michigan and among the five most segregated cities in the nation.

OKT’s Lisa Oliver-King was in the audience and related how her white OB-GYN mistreated her when she went in for her initial exam after discovering she was pregnant. “I had just finished my masters’ degree. My husband and I had the very best health insurance. This was our first and planned pregnancy. The doctor spoke down to me in a very condescending manner. He even asked me ‘How many sexual partners do you have?’”

A white, OB-GYN nurse in the audience says she has noticed this treatment of pregnant black women where she works. She is making efforts to raise awareness. She noted that where she worked, 75% of back women were suspected of drug abuse and referred to screening whereas only 25% of white women were. She believes this discrepancy is due to racism. This discrepancy has been noted and new initiatives will require all women to be routinely screened.

OKT believes that other factors impacting infant mortality include diet and environmental toxins. Across the board, women rarely eat a well-balanced diet including 80 grams of protein each day. Physicians don’t often provide sufficient nutritional advice and can tend to stoke fears of weight gain. This may influence women to eat less in the final months of pregnancy when the infant needs the most nutrition. Women of color living in neighborhoods without access to healthy foods face additional barriers.

Recent research has shown that organophosphate pesticides, fire retardants in clothing and furniture, compounds found in most plastics and on every electronic receipt are linked to premature labor and, low birth weight as well as autism, hyperactivity, lower IQ and cerebral palsy in children. Girls exposed in the womb have more risk for emotional illness; boys are more prone to aggression. (Organophosphates were first developed for deadly chemical warfare and later modified for use as pesticides.) Urban neighborhoods with income-challenged residents, most often people of color, have higher incidence of environmental toxins.

Another consideration is the American way of birth. As a nation, we rank 58th in infant mortality. That means, 57 other countries are a safer place to have a baby. (Cuba is one of the safest.) “Other countries recognize the value of health. They offer comprehensive sex education, comprehensive healthcare, lengthy maternal leave,” noted audience member, Peggy Vander Meulen, who is program director at Strong Beginnings. “Here we also have wealth disparities and racism. It’s political will. Are we going to fund wars and tax cuts for the wealthy or are we going to fund health and education?”

Progress has been made in Kent County. Vander Meulen reported that the 2003 Kent County black infant mortality rate was five times higher (22.3 per thousand) than white infants; today it is two times higher.  “We have made a lot of progress,” she said.  “We’re not there until there is no disparity. If we get to Cuba’s rate, I can retire.”

Alexander concluded that stress experienced related to racism is an undervalued part of the conversation. Sanchez-Lloyd agreed. “Black women carry the burden of being black, the weight of it every day, living in the white culture,” she said. “When I was pregnant, I remember the added stress of watching African American men get shot on TV and having to wonder if my husband, who is a police officer, would be shot when not in uniform, just for driving while black.”

OKT Food Justice Series: Definitions

foodjustice_1Our Kitchen Table has developed a series of publications about different facets of Food Justice over the past several years. As our farmers’ market and growing programs are in seasonal hibernation, we will be highlighting the series on a weekly basis here on the website. Today, we will commence with brief definitions of a few Food Justice terms. (By the way, we may be starting up a limited, indoor, winter farmers’ market soon — we will keep you posted!)

Food Justice

The benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed and eaten are shared fairly. Food Justice transforms the current food system to eliminate disparities and inequities by focusing on issues of gender class and race.

fs-food-securityFood Insecurity

1) You cannot get healthy foods. 2) You cannot store or prepare healthy foods. And, 3) Only junk and fast foods are available in your neighborhood.

Food Sovereignty
People determine the kind of food system they want, as long as it is ecologically sustainable.

Food Dessert? No.

Generally used to describe neighborhoods with little or no access to large grocery stores that offer fresh and affordable foods. Is this a good term? After all, a desert is a vibrant incomegap_introecosystem. And, grocery stores are not a measure of food security.

Food Apartheid. Yes.
The intentional, systemic marketing and distribution of profitable, nutrient-poor, disease-causing foods to income-challenged neighborhoods, mainly, communities of color (i.e. communities receiving the most food assistance dollars).


Lillie House offers “Introduction to Permaculture” in Kalamazoo

unnamedInterested in gardening, natural building, farming, community organizing, finding right livelihood, or building a more regeneraitive resilient life in a crazy world? Permaculture is a great place to start!

In this class, look at inspiring, practical ideas for:
– Easier, more sustainable gardening.
– Real world examples of Permaculture community building.
– Practical home energy improvements that pay for themselves.
– Strategies for water harvesting.
– Examples of regenerative livelihoods, farms, gardens and businesses.
– Edible, ecological landscaping that’s good for you, and good for the planet!

The class will have a suggested donation of $25 for the morning and $50 for the full day, but no one will be turned away due to a lack of funds. It is being hosted by Lillie House Permaculture and VanKal Permaculture. 

The principle teacher for this class will be Michael Hoag of Lillie House. To learn more about Lillie House, visit: www.lilliehouse.blogspot.com. To see the full schedule or reserve your spot, visit the Lillie House website.

Our Farmers’ Market enjoyed a successful season

November 12 marked the last day for the 2016 Southeast Area Farmers’ Market. For the first year, both market days, Friday and Saturday, were held at MLK Jr. Park at 900 Fuller St. SE. The yellow market tents drew lots of traffic from park visitors and passersby. Many community partners, including the Spoke Folks, GRFD, LINC-UP Soul Food Cafe, Planned Parenthood and others, shared resources and special events like Art at the Market and the Greens Cook-off made market days even more fun. Thank you vendors, patrons and partners!

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OKT played active role in four important fall Michigan conferences

123951This fall, Our Kitchen Table has had the opportunity to attend and four different Michigan conferences relative to its work.

On September 24, the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition sponsored a conference in Detroit. Discussion centered on the Michigan Environmental Justice Plan, developed with input from many of the state’s most prominent activists during the Granholm administration. Pressured to complete the plan before the Snyder administration took power, those involved agreed to accepting a weakened version. Even so, the Snyder administration shelved the plan.

OKT was impressed by the commitment demonstrated by staff members from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) who were present at this conference. This commitment fostered hope that government could come on board as a protector of Michigan’s environment and thus its citizens’ health.

Another government official, Agustin V. Arbulu, director of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, led a session that highlighted how the Flint water crisis transformed environmental justice into a civil rights issue. As such, those impacted by environmental catastrophe may be able to access more governmental power to effect change.

On October 20, OKT traveled to Ann Arbor for the  Great Lakes Chapter of the Society for Public Health Education (GLC-SOPHE) conference, which hosted public health professionals from across the state. Here, OKT’s executive director, Lisa Oliver-King, and communications manager, Stelle Slootmaker, shared “The Many Facets of Food Justice” with the 50 folks who chose to attend the session. The presentation focused on the ten-part food justice series that OKT has developed over the past four years. Lisa brought the session to a rousing conclusion with an emphasis on how food justice is integral to public health.

Grand Rapids’ LINC Empowered Communities conference was next on the agenda. Southeast Area Farmers’ Market vendor, Yvonne Woodard joined Lisa and Stelle to listen to the morning panel featuring Van Jones. After the panel, Lisa and Stelle presented “Growing an Alternative Food System: The OKT Model” at one of the breakout sessions. After defining food justice terminology and intersectional foci, the two shared how the very replicable OKT model is making a difference in Grand Rapids.

On October 28, the OKT contingent drove to East Lansing to for the Michigan Good Food Summit. In the afternoon, Lisa, Yvonne and Stelle repeated their presentation, “Food Justice and How to Grow It” for 90 participants—it was the most popular workshop of the day!

OKT believes that sharing its model will help educate others working in food issues not only on the injustices of the current industrial food system but also on ways to build an alternative that will operate outside the bounds of racism, improve community members’ health and contribute to the earth’s environmental recovery.

You can view the PowerPoint presentations on the Educational Handouts & Recipes page of this website.