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: 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.

Partners for a Racism-free Community offers free program Thursday

prfcDeconstructing Institutional Bias
4 – 5 p.m. Thursday, November 17
At Heart of West Michigan United Way
118 Commerce Ave SW
Grand Rapids, MI 49503 United States


On Thursday, November 17 from 4:00pm-5:00pm, Partners for a Racism-Free Community will open up its Building Block program Deconstructing Institutional Bias to the community at large free of charge. For more information on this event please contact Breannah Alexander at

In addition, they released the following statement:

A Statement from Partners for a Racism-Free Community on recent news:

Last week members of our team were at Race Forward’s Facing Race conference in Atlanta, GA with 2,000 other individuals working to address racial disparity across the United States and, in some cases, globally. The attendees carried with them the weight of a saddening and damaging presidential election cycle and grappled with the meaning of the results. At Partners for a Racism-Free Community we cannot ignore the significance of the campaign rhetoric and the problematic nature of a space in which relentless hate speech yielded such an outcome.

This is what we know: right now, in this moment, we have to make a series of decisions that all impact how we shape our communities and our children moving forward. We know that there is a woeful need for continued education on race. We know that there are places and spaces that not only create uncomfortable realities for people of color in our communities, but dangerous ones as well. What we must first learn to do, however, is listen. In this moment, we must give room for healing and respect that, for some, a safety pin is still not indicative of a safe space. We must address the privilege that leads us to erase the feelings and pain of those around us as we ask our fellow communities members to unify in ways that silence their oppression.

As we navigate this moment we must remember to center the voices of those at risk. A lesson that has undoubtedly been reinforced this election cycle is that we must also be clear about how our ally-ship affects others. Are we listening to those we are supporting? Does our rhetoric translate into the kind of daily actions that address racism as it’s happening in our families, places of worship and communities at large? Are we having the conversation with all of our young people and what are we saying? We cannot sustain the practice of dispersing the burden of understanding to historically disenfranchised groups only.

Today, our team asks you to think about your commitment to addressing racism, creating inclusive spaces and navigating what it means to hold yourself and those around you accountable for their actions. In our profession, witnessing is crucial in doing this work and last Tuesday there was a failure to witness. This moment mirrors other pivotal historical moments globally – the recognition of strife that saves lives and the failure to witness that destroys them.

Our organization will continue to support this community as it works to better understand the kind of environment it wants to cultivate. We will continue to educate. We will continue to elevate the voices of the oppressed. We will continue to create spaces for dialogue. And we will work harder to activate community members who desire to engage further in this work and be the resource that you need for moments like these.

On Thursday, November 17 from 4:00pm-5:00pm, Partners for a Racism-Free Community will open up its Building Block program Deconstructing Institutional Bias to the community at large for free of charge. For more information on this event please contact Breannah Alexander at

For more information on Partners for a Racism-Free Community, please visit our website at

Come to the last session of Cook, Eat & Talk on Thursday

cook-eat-talk-bannerThursday Nov. 17 marks the final public session of OKT’s 8-week cooking series with Grand Rapids’ cooking chef and farmer, Anja Mast. Participants have  prepared and tasted a host of healthy dishes, become more “food literate” so healthy choices are easier, and learned about food justice. Please join us for either the morning 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. session of the evening 6 to 8 p.m. evening session to learn how to make healthy mac-n-cheese from scratch. Both take place at Sherman Stree Church, 1000 Sherman St. SE 49506.

Last week, Anja shared super-healthy deserts including black bean brownies and bread pudding.

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