“Anthropology News” publishes article about OKT

anOKT collaborative partner, Dr. Christy Mello, submitted this article to Anthropology News

Civil Rights, Food Sovereignty and Activism: Our Kitchen Table’s Food Diversity Project

An activist organization named Our Kitchen Table (OKT) confronts the structural racism responsible for the food insecurity, environmental health issues, and gentrification inequitably impacting the African American and low-income residents of Southeast Grand Rapids, Michigan. As a group of women living in or having ties to these neighborhoods, members of OKT created the Food Diversity Project, a cooperative food-growing model in which members educate participants about the root causes of these problems. It is a community-led advocacy project that involves other activists, utilizes popular education activities, analyzes public policy, and mobilizes citizens to network as backyard and community gardeners. By sharing my observations of power relations in the city, I assist OKT with project development and policy analysis. My study of power reveals how non-profit groups and economic developers are further gentrifying the Southeast neighborhoods in the name of food security. These initiatives do not address the actual reasons responsible for food insecurity, one being poverty. Instead, they offer Band-Aid solutions. Members of OKT, on the other hand, who are influenced by those who participated in the War on Poverty during the Civil Rights Era, deal with the systemic causes of poverty by implementing long-term solutions to food insecurity.

OKT typically consists of six to eight women concerned with food sovereignty, reducing health disparities, community activism, and politics. Drawing upon their members’ expertise, OKT organizes in response to local individuals interested in building toxic-free neighborhoods and a self-sustaining food system. To achieve this objective, in 2008, OKT began facilitating a social network of household and community gardeners who share their excess harvest and resources and teach others how to grow food. They refer to this capacity-building model as the Food Diversity Project. One of its major goals is to reduce the high rates of food insecurity—defined as little to no access to fresh, healthy, culturally appropriate, or affordable food—as experienced by residents living in the Southeast.


A major facet of the growing popularity of the local food movement in Grand Rapids is concern over food insecurity. This is due to the fact that Grand Rapids is a mid-size city now in rebirth after the 2007 onset of the housing market crisis in the United States and the 2008 global financial crisis. To improve the economy, business stakeholders began to advertise Grand Rapids as being a destination spot offering cultural popular activities, locally owned businesses, and locally made products. Local food is central to this growing cultural identity. The Southeast has become an inviting place to entrepreneurs who are buying up cheap foreclosed housing and vacant buildings, as well as starting new businesses. They refer to this gentrification as “urban revitalization.” Much of it is being done in the name of building food security via the local food movement. Nonetheless, the current residents continue to be negatively affected by economic decline and face serious health disparities resulting from an industrial legacy and high rates of food insecurity.

OKT’s Food Diversity Project contends with the fact that Grand Rapids is a rapidly gentrifying city. For this reason, as a consultant, I teach a food history class in order to educate about the level of inequality attached to different subsistence strategies and how this relates to the political, social, and economic organization of societies. This is my basis for explaining the insidious ways that power manifests itself in the Southeast neighborhoods. Overall, my power analysis illustrates neoliberalism in practice, the privatization of public amenities. For example, where neighborhoods are undergoing rapid gentrification, food security projects, most often based on providing local food, are increasingly present. Stakeholders are receiving public and private funding based on university and privately collected data on food insecurity. The city has provided taxpayers’ dollars to non-profit organizations that coordinate these ventures with community development corporations and businesses. Some of these non-profit organizations even include representatives from large corporations and banks. The city has also gifted a few of these groups with vacant lots and homes in exchange for maintenance work to public amenities such as sidewalks and streets. Stakeholders are not attempting to solve food insecurity but are, instead, using these resources for new businesses or initiatives that improve business zone corridors and that build or rehabilitate housing in poor communities. This is a type of structural racism that is intensifying the ongoing gentrification.

Structural Versus Band-Aid Solutions to Food Insecurity

Local food projects, designed by non-profit organizations, are often apart of economic development initiatives and evade grassroots community building efforts that have the potential to directly address the structural inequality of poverty. These top-down initiatives do not create long-term solutions led by those who are directly impacted by health and economic disparities. Local food activists in Grand Rapids acknowledge the fact that what is of significance for these organizers may be of no consequence to those who are poor. These outsiders’ attempts are often paternalistic in that they target individuals whom they see as socially disadvantaged to make changes, for example, by eating healthy to prevent diabetes. These local food initiatives’ approach to food insecurity drastically differs from that of OKT members and affiliates who are inspired by the Civil Rights Era, as well as other movements for justice. Due to these influences, OKT’s neighborhood-based local food project addresses food insecurity by accounting for the causes of poverty rather than passively accepting them and focusing solely on individual behavior. OKT aims for long-term structural change.
Capacity Building ActivitiesOKT’s Food Diversity Project, in part, draws its inspiration from the Black Panther Party (BPP), who realized during the Civil Rights Movement that people are unable to fight injustice if their need for food is unmet. OKT has hosted events in which individuals reference the work of the BPP. They discuss the fact that the Black Panthers offered a Free Breakfast for Children Program, the first of many Survival Programs, in inner city areas as they educated about how capitalism is the cause of social injustice. Similarly, OKT provides support for food growers while teaching them how to be agents in shaping social change. Participants collectively build their own capacity through resident-led activities in which they learn how growing their own food challenges the inequality impacting their livelihoods, supplements income, and has health benefits. First, the raising of consciousness must occur for people to learn the historical, economical, and political context for their poverty and lack of food security. This is why OKT has me share my observations about power dynamics and how they are directly related to capitalistic enterprise. Thus, the Food Diversity Project takes an interactive popular education approach for explaining the relationship between economic and health disparities with social injustice.

The goal of popular education, a model developed by Paulo Freire, is to develop peoples’ capacity for social change through a collective problem-solving approach and critical analysis of social problems. The Food Diversity Project’s application of the popular education method involves several capacity-building activities related to promoting food security, avoiding exposure to lead in the soil, and education on sustainable subsistence activities. Interactive workshops provide education on canning and seed saving, composting, starting plants from seeds, organic growing methods, growing winter crops, and selecting seeds for plant diversity. Walking and bicycle tour workshops are organized around both household gardens and naturally growing food in the neighborhoods. During these tours, examples of topics include lead in the soil; herbal gardening for health and culinary purposes; and urban foraging for edible fruit, nuts, and weeds that grow in public spaces within the city. Cooking demonstrations are another type of workshop, in which peer educators prepare food with both familiar and unfamiliar types of locally grown produce. Workshops encourage gardeners to grow and share food, and diversify their gardens. OKT also gives away plants, hosts a farmers’ market, and partners with schools for gardening with the youth.

During many of these capacity-building activities, conversations center on critical topics as they relate to social inequality and food justice. For instance, attendees discuss different land use policies such as those that support growing local food and those that facilitate the gentrification occurring in the city. Members of OKT also make a point to appreciate the benefits and importance of food sovereignty, evident in the aforementioned list of activities. This concept can be understood as citizens having democratic ownership over the production and consumption of food. Moreover, it involves conserving the Earth’s resources for future generations by planting heirloom seeds to maintain biodiversity, preserving cultural knowledge around growing food, and not using chemicals that poison the land, air, water, and living species.

The Food Diversity Project has a deeply ingrained food justice perspective for challenging power through encouraging people to grow their own food in a sovereign fashion. OKT advocates for the collective stewardship of our environmental resources and contests the private enterprise gentrifying the Southeast in the name of food security. Neoliberalism is evident in that the city is privatizing public amenities. This type of unregulated capitalism is responsible for the gentrification and reinforcement of the health disparities that are affecting residents. Following the concept of social justice developed during the Civil Rights Era, as well as other social movements, OKT developed the Food Diversity Project for practicing food sovereignty in lieu of this injustice.

Christy Mello is a visiting assistant professor of anthropology in the department of anthropology and sociology at the University of Southern Mississippi. She specializes in applying anthropological methods for supporting activist groups that address food and environmental injustice. She is currently a consultant for the activist group, Our Kitchen Table.

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