Did you ever wonder where Our Kitchen Table got its start? Here’s the story. Reposted from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation Encore program blog.
FROM A HANDED-DOWN KITCHEN TABLE — A PROGRAM OF EMPOWERMENT
As a youngster, few things struck Lisa Oliver so profoundly as the moments she would join her family around the kitchen table where she grew up in Missouri, just to talk. “A lot of good, good and difficult and funny and serious conversations happened around this table,” she says, as she runs her hands over the smoky glass top. The table now resides in the kitchen of the home she shares with her husband and daughters on Grand Rapids’ southeast side.
Years after serving as a gathering place during her childhood days, the table continued to spawn ideas and it was over wine with a friend years ago that she was challenged to develop a program that might amp up environmental and social justice.
Fast forward to today and Lisa is founder and director of “Our Kitchen Table,” (OKT) a quiet force that empowers urban neighborhoods to improve their health and monitor sometimes life-threatening environments through education, advocacy and community organizing.
“I really wanted to have my children understand the importance of giving back,” she says, acknowledging that her daughters know the power of communicating around the magic table. “It was important that I talk to them and have them understand the value and effect of community.”
Our Kitchen Table didn’t appear on Lisa’s early horizons, but it definitely comprises her Encore life, and reflects a life of service in other areas, all of which helped to build on the concept that drives the success of her non-profit.
She worked in the public health sector well into her 40s, including jobs with the Kent County Health Department, the Michigan Public Health Institute, and Hospice of Michigan. She also did consulting work around public health and it’s during that period that a girlfriend stopped Lisa in her tracks during that table talk and suggested “You should move beyond consulting and do some real community engagement.”
Lisa was more than intrigued and was led by a variety of factors to explore the problems around lead poisoning and how it affected human health and the environment. That concern branched out to explore strategies for mobilizing low-income families, mostly on Grand Rapid’s southeast side and, in 2003, she founded OKT to combat oppression, race and gender bias, and disparities in wealth and power.
Banking on strong social networks, OKT empowers families with the tools to develop homegrown foods even on properties threatened by soils with suspected or actual high lead levels. OKT teaches residents how to grow crops in containers and take full advantage of the Southeast Area Farmer’s Market, which is moving this June through mid-November to Martin Luther King Park at Franklin Street and Fuller Avenue SE.
It’s there that OKT will continue partnering with the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council and the Kent County Health Department to host educational events and participate in the Bridge Card (SNAP), Michigan Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Project Fresh, Kent County Health Department coupons and DoubleUp Food Bucks programs.
Lisa views her participation as a chance to immerse herself in community and make a difference with a program that meets basic human needs and lifts up families with education as a core element.
“We promote growing from a systemic lens and from understanding what is going on in the community,” she says. “And we look at the entire food landscape, everything from grocery stores to wild edibles to pantries to food-buying clubs and co-ops.
“I don’t do charity,” she emphasizes. “I just do what I’m supposed to do. I’m my brother’s keeper, and I try to emphasize that. It’s the best way to use my gifts, to help people express kindness. It’s what we should be to each other.”