This June I had the opportunity to meet Lisa Oliver-King and others working with Our Kitchen Table (OKT), a Grand Rapids area grass-roots, non-profit organization. OKT promotes social justice by serving as a vehicle to empower their neighbors so they can improve their health, the health of their communities and their environment. My time with OKT consisted of a walking tour of the Eastown neighborhood where Oliver-King and others pointed out the multiple urban gardening and foraging projects they are involved with. This experience made a marked impression on my own interests in the natural, culinary and agricultural world. Rather than describing OKT’s mission in total, I would instead like to focus in on two aspects of this experience that especially resonated with me.
First, and most broadly, OKT seeks to inform policy-makers and neighborhood residents alike that there are more than just private retail solutions to the problem of lack of access to healthy food. OKT works in neighborhoods where nutritious and fresh food are largely not accessible. In such places, the knee-jerk solution is to locate a new grocery store. While this approach has its obvious merits, one problem with the retail model is that it fails to address the widening gap between people and decisions about which foods are both healthy and beneficial for communities. Instead, OKT works in both the policy arena and with their neighbors to develop alternatives to retail models, including a range of urban gardening practices. This range specifically is what I want to emphasize. Urban gardens operate under multiple management practices. On our walking tour we visited a garden run by a neighborhood association, where individual families tended specific portions of the garden, a garden where neighbors collaborated and negotiated space and shared responsibilities on their own, as well as private gardens of area residents. In private gardens, OKT works with residents to develop container gardens that are easy to manage and highly productive. Each model had its upsides and downsides. For instance, the garden operated by the neighborhood association encouraged a patchwork management style, where individual growers came and went on their own terms. The collaborative garden necessarily entailed closer networks and communication. The private gardens performed yet another role in that they served as a means to spark conversation and new social ties between neighbors that began to share ideas, information, knowledge, and gardening techniques. Together, each of these gardens provide alternative means for individuals, families, and communities to access food and increase control over their own lives.
Second, along with urban gardens, OKT emphasizes urban foraging. One need not travel to rural areas to find wild food. Instead, the trees, bushes, shrubs, and other various plants throughout the Eastown neighborhood provide multiple sources of nutrition – if you know where to look. Oliver-King emphasized two types of food in particular that area residents had low access to – berries, and seeds and nuts. While seeds such as sunflower seeds could be grown quite successfully, others such as black walnuts were abundant in the area, and if harvested seasonally, could provide a healthy addition to meals all year long. Moreover, black cap raspberries were abundant but somewhat overlooked in the area.
The key to connecting communities to these resources, however, involves more than merely changing the behavior of individuals via educating people on how to grow and identify sources of food. Instead, OKT identifies and engages with structural and policy barriers. We discussed two in particular on our walk. First, OKT encourages its neighbors to see their potential gardens through a historical lens and ask what exactly is in the soil they might till up? OKT’s on-staff biochemist, for instance, samples area soils for lead and arsenic, toxic residuals from house paint as well as pesticides and herbicides historically used to treat the residential area’s previous use as apple orchards. Some soil samples in the area were many times higher than EPA standards for playground toxicity — a default equivalent as standards for outdoor gardens do not exist. Rather than soil remediation, which is expensive and not probable under most circumstances, OKT works with families to develop container gardens in order to avoid disturbing contaminated soil.
Second, and hitting close to home for me, OKT works with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to influence policy decisions on selecting tree and plant varieties for public spaces as well as maintenance practices – including treatment with chemicals. Trees and other plants can provide significant benefits to urban spaces such as moderating the micro-climate and absorbing and filtering storm water. There are many efforts nationally that are working to reforest urban areas to acquire such benefits. However, as OKT stresses, not all trees are created equal. Rather than simply encouraging the planting of more trees, OKT is interested in the impact new trees will have on neighborhoods and how residents will respond. For some, more trees can be seen as causing an additional nuisance from leaves that clog gutters and roots that block pipes. The leaves of certain trees, however, such as maples, break down in composts much better than other varieties, such as oaks. Moreover, maples can be tapped in the spring and the sap evaporated into maple syrup, which could provide neighborhoods with an alternative and healthier source of sugar. In regards to chemical treatments, little communication exists between the Parks department and neighborhood residents, leading to heightened perception of risks around foraging for fruit such as apples and mulberries as well as nuts and roots.
To put this together, part of OKT’s effort is to reframe both policy practices and local understandings of the area’s resources. Key to success is what social movement scholars call “frame transformation,” which refers to a change in the relevance of things such as trees and plants and urban spaces that in some sense are already meaningful. My own frame transformation took place around two of my own favorite practices, namely, winemaking and maple syruping. I have approached both of these activities from the perspective of my own personal enjoyment. I revel in fresh fruit and the yearlong process of pressing, fermenting and aging my wines on oak, as well as tapping maple trees in the dark months of February and March and boiling down the sap into sweet syrup. In spending time with OKT, however, I began to see that these individual practices could also be part of something much larger. The ingredients necessary for both winemaking and syruping can be collected through urban foraging. Neighbors can work together to collect fruit as well as care for fruit bearing plants and thereby begin building a repertoire of foraging practices that are largely removed from reliance on the area’s limited retail market. Moreover, maple syruping is a time and labor intensive practice – yet nothing about syruping demands it be done in a shack in the woods. Instead, neighborhood residents can collectively identify viable maple species and collaborate on constructing many individual or one central evaporator, much in the same way that collaborations are underway for managing shared gardens. In this way, OKT’s walking tour has broadened my appreciation of the socially positive attributes of being aware of, using, and sharing publicly available resources. My many thanks to OKT for this knowledge and experience as well as their ongoing efforts to shape policy in directions that explicitly benefit not only national scale but local needs and concerns.