OKT featured in Kellogg Foundation “NightLight”

This is re-posted from NightLight

Our Kitchen Table

KELLE BARR
Our Kitchen Table - Photo by Adam Bird

PHOTO BY ADAM BIRD
With Farmers’ Markets, cooking classes, and home gardening instruction, Our Kitchen Table is turning the tide for people living in Grand Rapids neighborhoods that had limited options for buying fresh, healthy food. This compact nonprofit is also addressing other health and social justice issues, like lead poisoning and air quality.

Michigan Nightlight: In your view, what makes your program innovative, effective or remarkable?
Our Kitchen Table Communications Officer Stelle Slootmaker: Our Kitchen Table is addressing food insecurity through a justice lens. Our goal is to not only increase access to healthy foods, specifically fresh produce, but also to work side by side with the community to build power and capacity that results in the community creating their own alternative food system. We have four targeted neighborhoods in Grand Rapids that were chosen because of limited access to fresh foods. We’re working with those people so that they can grow their own foods – they are assigned garden coaches and garden buddies for this. We are growing the starter plants (about 7,000 of them) in a greenhouse right now. Most people plant container gardens because so many rent. They can take their gardens along with them if they move.

What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
People in our targeted neighborhoods are looking for ways to access healthier foods; they welcome the presence of the farmers’ markets we ran and the gardening opportunities we offer. It’s not that people don’t want to eat healthy – Our Kitchen Table recognizes that it’s not a matter of making poor choices. People in our targeted neighborhoods are looking for ways to access healthier foods; they welcome the presence of the farmers’ markets we ran and the gardening opportunities we offer. It’s not that people don’t want to eat healthy – Our Kitchen Table recognizes that it’s not a matter of making poor choices.But if you don’t have a car and you’re eating from the corner store, you are at risk for diabetes, heart problems, obesity, asthma and other diseases poor nutrition contributes to. We have two farmers’ markets in the heart of the targeted areas, within walking distance. They are open from the first week of June until the end of October.

What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
How to work with our Southeast Area Farmers’ Market partners when facing the realities of institutional racism.

What really differentiates this program?
We are not telling people how to eat – giving them a vegetable and telling them they should eat this. People want to eat healthy and they know about healthy food. We are working at increasing access through a model called “Popular education” and the urban foraging of fruit and nut trees is a part of the growing food system. There are apple trees and nut trees in the area that no one is picking and that’s important for people to know.

What are the keys to success for your program?
It’s about communication. Keeping it real. Working side by side with the neighborhood residents – not “us vs. them.” It’s about having team members that work extremely hard because they are totally invested in the work. We continue education all year long; for example, there are some plants, like herbs, that can come into the house after growing season ends. We hold events called “Cook, Eat and Talk,” where chefs come in and demonstrate recipes; we have fun with that and eat the meal. It is our hope that eventually we can turn this over to the neighborhoods because they won’t need us anymore. Success is also about political education. We are trying to influence the City of Grand Rapids to plant more fruit and nut trees as they plant trees and on the local level, we are going to address the local composting ordinance. Nationally, we are addressing the 2012 Farm Bill because the way it is written now, it will hurt people who get help from the government to buy food.

How does race or diversity affect the work of your program?
Environmental justice and food justice, rather the lack thereof, are rooted in institutional racism. Our neighborhoods are heavily populated with people of color, and if you look where many people of color live, it’s next to the incinerator, the industry spewing out pollution. Environmental justice and food justice, rather the lack thereof, are rooted in institutional racism. Our neighborhoods are heavily populated with people of color, and if you look where many people of color live, it’s next to the incinerator, the industry spewing out pollution.These areas are horrendously impacted by pollution and it’s not only the air, but the homes they live in. They tend to be older homes, lots of them with lead paint, so lead poisoning is a danger. The soil can be full of lead and arsenic, so that’s another reason for container gardens or raised gardens in those neighborhoods. So there’s lack of access to healthy foods, health problems caused by that and pollution – then you throw in the stress of having to wake up every day in a racist society. That’s difficult because we like to pretend that we are post-racism, but the truth is that racism is still everywhere you turn.

 

Lisa Oliver-King

Lisa Oliver-King - Photo by Adam Bird

 PHOTO BY ADAM BIRD

Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Lisa Oliver-King, Executive Director of Our Kitchen Table: I don’t really feel like a leader because we are not doing something that is brand new here. Food plants and seeds come from God and it is simply our responsibility to respond and connect with that to create the gardens that help people become more self-sustainable. We have a saying here called “seek to understand and then to be understood” and that is how I practice my leadership. I need to seek to understand how to best communicate so I can do what is best for OKT because what works for one group may not work for another. For instance, we talk about creating gardens and that’s working out great in our targeted neighborhoods, but we do more to educate, like taking bicycle tours around them to see fruit and nut trees and plants in their own areas. They are amazed to find out how many nut trees there are. And that those dark spots on the ground are actually mulberries that fell from a mulberry tree.

What is your dream for kids?
My dream for kids is that they are able to run down the street and grab a handful of mulberries or raspberries, eat them and to continue their play and have fun. My dream for kids is that they are able to run down the street and grab a handful of mulberries or raspberries, eat them and to continue their play and have fun.I just love watching them learn. When you can see in a child’s face what they have learned about nature from this program; their eyes are opened. Once they know what nature provides, they become much more respectful of the environment. They throw down less trash, they decide to play in a park just because raspberries grow there. When it rains, they say things like “Mom, God is watering our plants!” They form such an appreciation for nature.

What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
One key thing that people need to know is – historically – how their land has been used. Every agricultural project should start with a review (we go back 40 years) but knowing what contaminants are present – like lead and arsenic – is good for everyone, everywhere to know, not just OKT gardeners. It’s about staying healthy and helping people learn different ways to stay healthy. For us, if we find out that the setting used to be an industrial site, we can find out what kind of industry it was to determine what kinds of contaminants to look for. For example, one of our Grand Rapids sites used to be fruit orchards, so we tested the soil for things like pesticides and fertilizers.

How do you know you are making progress?
People keep showing up! Around 85 percent of our growers come to OKT workshops consistently. And our Food Gardening Coaches visit the gardens at least once a week when it’s warm and once a month when it’s cold, after they bring their herbs inside. Those coaches are finding that growers are becoming much more comfortable with growing as time passes. We teach them how to stick their hands in the dirt to see if the plants need watering because it tells them much more than just brushing the top of the soil and finding it dry – it might not be dry underneath and it might not need the watering they were going to give it.

What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the fact that I took a leap of faith when I got to OKT. I have a background in public health, and I was not a food grower then, and I wondered what kind of credibility I could offer the people we serve. So, I just shut up and I listened to the people who did know what they were doing. I listened, I touched the earth and now my daughters and I have our own raised bed gardens. We grow greens, lettuces, radishes, carrots, and fruits. I started experiencing that incredible feeling that I see our growers experience by learning how it happens to them. I have always eaten nutritious foods, such as produce from farmers in my family, but I had never seen a food plant. I didn’t know a broccoli plant from a carrot plant from a weed because I had never seen it grow. Now I do. Now I know that incredible feeling right alongside the people that OKT serves.

What keeps you awake at night?
Not being able to reach enough people and help everyone who wants our help. People call all the time [from outside targeted neighborhoods] because they have heard of our gardening project and they want our help to learn to grow their own food. It’s just not enough to send them to our website for instructions or tell them to read a book because food is very personal and a piece of paper is not a hand. I only have so many resources, but I don’t ever want to turn anyone down, no matter where they live. So many people need us. I only have so many resources, but I don’t ever want to turn anyone down, no matter where they live. So many people need us.

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