Michigan Radio’s “The Next Idea” features Lisa Oliver-King

Listen to the interview (scroll down to the bottom of page)

Essay: For more access to healthy food, new gardens just aren’t enough  Posted 10-28-2015 by Michigan Radio The Next Idea

School gardens seem like a great idea. Teachers get to reinforce key concepts in science and math, students get hands-on experiences with healthy food, and everyone gets to eat homegrown snacks at the end of a few months. Sounds good, right? Wrong.

In fact, most school gardens fail. They might look good at first. But without constant attention from parents, students, and community members, the plants wither, the weeds sprout, and the garden goes from an optimistic symbol of health to an ugly eyesore right in front of the school.

It requires a lot of relationship-building to have a lasting impact on a community’s eating habits and access to healthy food, which makes hunger difficult to solve on a more systemic level, says Lisa Oliver King.

It’s the sad truth that just planting a school garden doesn’t really help communities deal with larger systemic issues.

I live in Grand Rapids where income-challenged people do not have access to healthy foods within walking distance. For those who have disabilities, or lack access to a car, junk food and fast food may be the only options.

They may not even realize it, but these foods are making them sick. The members of my Grand Rapids community — mothers, fathers, elders and, yes, even youth — struggle every day to maintain their health and their very lives.

In order to tackle these big problems, we need to think bigger than just planting gardens. We need to change cultural priorities.

So what’s the Next Idea?

For this Next Idea, I can tell you what is working in my community. But I also want to hear from you. How could your town or city work towards changing our food culture here in Michigan?

In 2003, I founded a grassroots organization called Our Kitchen Table (OKT), which works with women of color to address issues of food access and nutrition. We use a hands-on model that emphasizes community engagement and transformation, not just charity or short-term education.

We call this the “See Do” approach. Our strategy is to get people working with us at the neighborhood level. We don’t simply give people gardens and walk away. Our gardeners see their garden coaches planting and maintaining their gardens—and dowork alongside them. When we see a lesson and then do it ourselves, we are more likely to incorporate it into our lives than when we just read about it, hear it, or view it on a PowerPoint.

We use this hands-on model in all four of our program areas:

  • Growing food. OKT began empowering income-challenged families and individuals by sharing everything they need to grow their own food: OKT-grown organic starter food plants, containers and composted soil, garden tools, garden coaches and garden education.
  • Teaching food preparation. OKT started to host free “Cook Eat & Talk” events so neighbors can learn easy ways to cook and preserve in-season produce from their gardens or farmers’ market.
  • Providing affordable, healthy food for sale in food insecure neighborhoods.OKT began managing the Southeast Area Farmers’ Market, a walkable market that welcomes food assistance dollars.
  •  Advocating for policy change. OKT seeks to impact local, regional and national policies in order to further the goals of food justice through education and action.

To implement this strategy, we work alongside our vulnerable neighbors so they can “see” that they can “do” it. We recruit team members who live in the neighborhoods and have personally experienced the results of not having access to healthy food.

It is working in Grand Rapids. Over the past six years, we have seen how “doing” changes lives.

There are mothers enthusiastically preparing healthy foods for their children, and elders becoming regular customers at our farmers’ market. Women of color are improving their health. We have grown a small core collective of community members who have become enthusiastic advocates for better access to healthy food in their neighborhoods.

But here’s where it gets complicated. Unlike other Next Ideas, which could be adapted by other towns and cities or even scaled up to be statewide, the “See Do” approach depends on being an intimate part of a neighborhood.

To return to the example of the school garden, we realized that the difference between a failed, ugly mess of rotting plants and a beautiful, inviting, healthy-food opportunity wasn’t just resources. It was relationships.

For example, did you know that school facilities personnel tend to hate school gardens? They’re the ones who end up having to clean up the land and the mess when students and teachers move on to the next assignment.

In order for us to make real change in the way young people view healthy food, Our Kitchen Table has had to engage community members at every level and get their buy-in. That type of approach — getting our neighbors to really see the impact of food disparities and join in the process to solve it — can’t just be easily transported from one local context to another.

So we know that overcoming food access disparity can’t be solved by just planting gardens. And that means the question becomes: How do we plant deep-rooted relationships? What ideas would allow your local communities to grow and thrive?

Lisa Oliver King is the founder of Our Kitchen Table in Grand Rapids. 

OKT featured in “Bridge: News and analysis from The Center for Michigan” article

For impoverished Michiganders, a little help in the kitchen

Reposted from Bridge, by Chastity Pratt Dawsey & Nancy Derringer

Cooking Matters: Instructor James Hartrick shows participants in a Cooking Matters class in Detroit how to put together a barley jambalaya dish. (Bridge photo by Nancy Derringer)

None of the women sitting in front of James Hartrick on a recent morning in Detroit look like kitchen amateurs, but he takes nothing for granted.

He’s here to show them how to make barley jambalaya, and he starts with the basics: Food safety. Hand washing. How to handle a knife. He asks if anyone in the group has food allergies or sensitivities. And then he gets to work dicing onions and green peppers.

This is Cooking Matters, a class aimed at low-income families, though open to all, to teach healthy food preparation, shopping and meal planning.

Nutrition and budgeting classes such as these are increasingly important in Michigan as residents face increased poverty, hunger and obesity.

Some of Michigan’s low-income families have seen their food budgets shrink because Michigan’s tough stance on federal food assistance has led to reductions in such programs in recent years.

Nutrition programs help fill the gap – offering low-income families help that goes beyond giving away food giveaways to help them budget and eat better. In 2014, 75 percent of Cooking Matters participants said the classes improved their nutrition practices and between 42 and 73 percent of participants (from children to seniors) reported eating more fruits and vegetables, according to Michigan State University Extension, which administers the program.

Hartrick’s class is a special edition for diabetics. Eleven participants, all African-American women, have gathered in a west-side community center to watch how he puts together this Cajun-influenced, low-fat, nutrient-balanced dish. They will leave with the recipe, the ingredients to reproduce it at home and the hope that it will perhaps inspire a change in how they prepare and consume meals.

Like a recipe, the class proceeds in steps; a little technique, a little education, a little audience participation. Members of the class share their reasons for being here today.

“I have to get my (blood) sugar down. Walking’s not helping,” one says. The smell of frying onion and pepper begins to waft through the room as the discussion turns to carbs and fats.

Michigan gets $23.7 million in federal funds to educate low-income residents on healthy eating habits, the second-highest amount allocated to any state. Noting the encouraging outcomes of nutritional education, experts say more can and should be done to make sure proven nutrition programs reach more people in need.

Hard poverty, fewer food benefits

The U.S. Census reported in September that one-in-six Michigan residents lives in poverty. Even so, some low-income residents receive less federal food assistance than in the past due to the state’s tough stance on public benefits. Michigan is one of 14 states that have an asset test for families enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program. In Michigan, anyone with savings over $5,000 cannot get federal food assistance, regardless of income. And last year Michigan was one of only four states that chose to not invest in the federal “heat and eat” program, which offers more food benefits to poor families in northern states to offset higher heating costs, which would’ve cost the state $18 million.

Vedette Flier-Certa, 5, of Grand Rapids, enjoys growing mushrooms at home. She tasted wild flowers growing near a school in Grand Rapids during a foraging workshop that seeks to teach people how to harvest local wild plants. (Bridge photo by Chastity Pratt Dawsey)

As a result, about 169,000 Michigan households enrolled in SNAP saw their federal food assistance reduced by an average of 15 percent, or $76 per month, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services data.

The state’s food insecurity rate also is about 15 percent, which means about one in six residents lack the funds to provide a reliable source of healthy food.

And yet, paradoxically, Michigan also is getting heavier – 30 percent of adults were classified as obese in 2014, up from 22 percent in 2000 and 13 percent in 1990, according to “The State of Obesity,” funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Cheap food is often filling but not healthy, so many impoverished families end up overweight, said Dawn Contreras, director of the Health and Nutrition Institute at the Michigan State University Extension.

“People fill up on low-nutrient, high-calorie food because they’re hungry and that’s what they have access to,” she said. “The cheapest food ends up being the food that promotes obesity.”

MSU Extension gets $7.5 million in federal SNAP Education funds to teach low-income residents how to improve their nutrition. MSU reached 84,000 people statewide last year and funds Cooking Matters classes taught outside the Detroit metro area (classes within the five-county metro-Detroit area are administered by Gleaners Community Food Bank) among other programs.

Cooking Matters is a national program dating from the early ‘90s ‒ a spinoff of the national hunger-relief program Share Our Strength, now known as No Kid Hungry. The cooking program came when organizers realized putting food into people’s hands was only half the battle, said Sarah Mills, program manager for Cooking Matters in Detroit.

“We can raise awareness and money to get food, but if people don’t know how to cook, it won’t be used,” said Mills. As lower-income people are likely to have complex or irregular work schedules and other challenges to a healthy lifestyle, Cooking Matters classes emphasize smart shopping and meal planning, so meals can be served even in difficult conditions.

In addition to surveys showing participants adopting healthier eating habits, the Cooking Matters program is slowing showing itself to be scalable: More than 5,000 people took Cooking Matters courses statewide in 2014, up from fewer than 1,000 in the program’s first year, in 2009.

Families interested in better nutrition must sign up for programs like Cooking Matters, it is not required in order to receive federal food benefits. But as low-income people look for ways to stretch food dollars, it and other programs are part of the solution.

Double Up Food Bucks, for instance, allows SNAP recipients to double their food assistance dollars if they use the money to buy Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and select grocery stores. It is a result of the the Local Food for Healthy Families Act, a federal law passed last year that provides five years of funding for food incentive programs. Participants have their EBT cards debited and receive twice the amount in tokens to spend at markets.

Foraging ahead

The sharp-eyed can even find fresh food growing from the ground, if they care to learn plant identification on vacant lots, hedgerows and other green spaces.

This past summer Laura Casaletto sat at a table at farmer’s market in a school parking lot in Grand Rapids next to a bucket of flowers and greens she plucked from public areas around town. Daisies, lamb’s quarters, St. John’s wort are all edible or good for making tea.

She also had a bowl of stir fried, orange day lily buds that tasted buttery, salty and a little slippery, not unlike okra. She and a plant-smart 5-year-old led a tour around Gerald Ford K-8 Academy for a class on foraging edible wild plants.

In about 15 minutes the school grounds and a neighbor’s side yard yielded wild grape leaves, milkweed, plantain, oyster plant, wild tomatillo, mulberries, garlic mustard, wild lettuce, lamb’s quarters and a bunch of flowers.

“Plants produce toxins to protect themselves,” Casaletto said, advising foragers only eat orange day lilies, no other colors. But as proof that wild plants can be wildly popular, she pointed out, “Martha Stewart has a recipe for candied violets.”

Laura Casaletto is one of the instructors for a foraging workshop conducted by Our Kitchen Table, a nonprofit that holds cooking and nutrition classes for low-income families and other residents in the Grand Rapids area. (Bridge photo by Chastity Pratt Dawsey)

Offered by Our Kitchen Table, a nonprofit, the foraging class teaches low-income Grand Rapids-area residents another way to put good food on the table, a method that costs no more than the effort to gather the plants. The classes started in 2013 with seven curious students, and has since served 157 people.

“Think about it, a bunch of dandelions costs what, $3.99 at Whole Foods?” said Lisa Oliver-King, director of OKT. “And we show people how to get it for free.”

Casaletto said there’s no such thing as weeds, because people can eat plenty of so-called weeds in salads once they learn to identify the good stuff.

A knowledge and fiscal deficit

Most Americans are now dependent on a business, a grocer or farm stand to tell them what plants or vegetables to eat. It took only a generation or two for a majority of Americans to go from growing their own food to being unable to tell the difference between a pepper and a poison.

One way to expand the reach of proven nutrition programs could be to offer them to a captive audience – school kids, said Sara Gold, director of Michigan No Kid Hungry, a Share Our Strength initiative supported by United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

Young people in vulnerable communities could be reached by adding nutrition education programs to school curriculums, or by tying nutrition lessons into federally-funded school meal programs, Gold said.

“We don’t really put those things together in ways that we could at the state level,” she said. “We know what works. We have to pay for it, expand it.”

But it has to be all carrot, no stick. “Federal regulations would not allow the state to mandate nutrition education classes,” said Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Cooking Matters and the foraging workshop maximizes and supplements SNAP benefits, but need remains high for the 1.5 million people – as of May – who still receive food assistance in Michigan.

Michigan’s asset test prevents some low-income Michigan residents from getting food assistance. Those who have a second car worth $15,000 or have savings of more than $5,000 have to choose between those savings and government assistance for food. They can’t have both.

The state defends its approach to food assistance eligibility, saying the effort is meant to protect U.S. taxpayers by providing federal food dollars to only the poorest of the poor in Michigan.

“While food assistance is provided with federal dollars, they are nonetheless taxpayer dollars,” said Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “And we are committed to integrity in the state’s public assistance system.”

Through MSU Extension, “Cooking Matters” is funded in part by SNAP Education funds but also with other grants and private donations. The diversity of funding sources means the workshops can be open to people who are – or are not – eligible for federal food assistance.

“We teach people to harvest right off the land, to go out and get fish and harvest fruit and vegetables and wild plants, learn how to prepare it and store it,” said Contreras, of MSU Extension. “Not everyone who needs it is eligible for food assistance. We know some people fall between the cracks. We don’t turn anyone away.”

Back in the Detroit Cooking Matters class, participant Gayle Pettiford, 74, says she has been working to improve her diet and live a healthier lifestyle since she was diagnosed with Type II diabetes nine years ago.

“I take my sugar reading every morning,” Pettiford said. “On a good day, it’s around 109 to 115. On a day when I cheat, it might be 143. Once a month I’ll have a breakfast splurge on breakfast, sausage and eggs. Otherwise I eat oatmeal.

“Back in the day, we all ate a lot of fried food, things that didn’t have a lot of substance. I don’t eat none of that anymore. I’m learning.”

This entry was posted on October 23, 2015, in Press and tagged .

OKT featured in IGE publication “Equity”

equityEquity is produced by the Institute for Global Education (IGE), 1118 Wealthy St. SE in Grand Rapids. IGE supports the nonviolent resolution to conflicts and the pursuit justice as the best way to achieve true, lasting peace through conscientious individual and group education and action. You can read the September issue of Equity here.

Our Kitchen Table is joining IGE for its children’s Peace Festival at the Eastown Street Fair, Saturday Sept.  12

This entry was posted on August 31, 2015, in Press and tagged , .

The Rapidian: “Local market creates access to fresh food in urban neighborhood”

Reposted from The Rapidian. By Nicholas Garbaty

Locally grown food sits on a vendors table at the South East Area Farmer’s Market /Nicholas Garbaty

The Southeast Area Farmer’s Market, run by Our Kitchen Table, sells locally-cultivated produce and goods in the southeast community of Grand Rapids. It aims to foster social justice, with the market as just one area in which that mission is lived out.

Blending groceries with a cause, the Southeast Area Farmer’s Market brings together local vendors and produce to help make natural food more accessible to the area. Located at Garfield Park (2111 Madison SE) on Fridays and the Gerald R. Ford Academic Center (851 Madison Ave SE)on Saturdays during the summer, the market is currently managed by Our Kitchen Table (OKT), a grassroots nonprofit organization that works with the communities of Grand Rapids to sustain healthy living and social justice.

The market started out as a collaboration between the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council and the Kent County Health Department 11 years ago. Since then, the main management of the market has shifted to OKT, but the goal remains the same.

“This market matters because it’s about addressing that we need to be here no matter what,” says Lisa Oliver-King, executive director of OKT. “It is supported by a community of color saying that they want to see food system change in their neighborhood.”

Most of the food sold at the market comes from urban farms within the area, none of which is out of season, according to Christina Flier, the market manager for OKT. Flier, along with other members of her community, helps out at the Thomas Street Community Garden in the Baxter neighborhood, which in turn sells its produce to the market.

“We all have a passion and our main passion is that everybody has access to food,” Flier says. “There aren’t a lot of grocery stores around here that you can go to and get fresh produce, so making that available to people is our main purpose.”

Though smaller in size, the market offers a range of products, from vegetables and fruits to spices and tea leaves. The type of food and the vendors change weekly, so each week offers a slightly different selection than the last.

Roscoe Price, an 87-year-old vendor, sells cherries, peaches and corn as well as J.R. Watkinsproducts. He’s sold the Watkins products alone for more than 30 years.

“We are the oldest direct-selling vendor in the USA,” Price says. “You go to the store, you won’t get the same results.”

Another vendor and member of OKT, Laura Casaletto, sells foraged materials, such as different grasses, leaves and berries, for use as tea ingredients. To her, great food can be easy to find if one knows just for what and where to look.

“There are things for you to eat everywhere,” she says. “I sell things to chefs in restaurants who’ll pay $40 a pound for stuff that is growing right [in my yard].”

Casaletto teaches foraging classes and engages in other projects with OKT, like the extension of bike lanes and planting of fruit trees in parks, to help educate and improve the community.

The market emphasizes the people of southeast Grand Rapids, but it has drawn in and welcomes people from outside the area, too.

“We’ve had constituents from East Grand Rapids, Caledonia, Wyoming, northeast and northwest Grand Rapids,” Oliver-King says. “We have had patrons from people who just drive by and see our yellow tents. They stop to see what we have and they come back.”

OKT records PSA for GRTV

Thanks to the good folks at GRTV, OKT’s executive director, Lisa Oliver-King, is getting the word out about our Southeast  Area Farmers’ Market. Here is the spot, which will air on GRTV over the next months.

OKT awarded $300 grant by Slow Food West Michigan

On March 8, Slow Food West Michigan awarded OKT a $300 micro-grant for purchasing seeds and supplies for our food gardening programsThe organization also awarded OKT its Snail of Approval, an emblem that recognizes contributions to the quality,authenticity and sustainability of the food supply of the West Michigan region.

Slow Food West Michigan is the West Michigan chapter of Slow Food, a non-profit, member-supported organization founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life. It stands against the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.

SFWM supports the mission of Slow Food, working closely with Slow Food USA, the national association headquartered in Brooklyn, NY. Slow Food USA envisions a future food system that is based on the principles of high quality and taste, environmental sustainability, and social justice—in essence, a food system that is good, clean and fair. We seek to catalyze a broad cultural shift away from the destructive effects of an industrial food system and fast life; toward the regenerative cultural, social and economic benefits of a sustainable food system, regional food traditions, the pleasures of the table, and a slower and more harmonious rhythm of life.

OKT’s executive director to be guest on Blogtalkradio this evening

Click on this BlogTalkRadio link Thursday Jan. 22 at 8:30 p.m.images

Producer and host of BlogTalkRadio program In Life Now, Toresa M. Blakely, “Coach TMB,” is featuring Lisa Oliver-King on her program 8:30 p.m. tonight. Oliver-King is the founder and executive director of Our Kitchen Table.  Over the past three and a half years, the program has hosted  many local and national guests. In Life Now Radio has a global audience and its listening audience is growing weekly.
The program is live. Blakely invits listeners to call in to join the dialogue. “We will talking about all things OKT tomorrow with Lisa and I know it is going to be a power packed show. People can listen to from their desktops, laptops, ipads, tablets, iphones or tablets,” Blakely notes. “Once we go off the air, this show will be available 24/7 as a podcast via iTunes, Blogtalkradio, and Stitcher Radio.”
Listeners can call in to the show with questions or comments by dialing 619-768-7239

Toresa M. Blakely, CPLC
This entry was posted on January 22, 2015, in Press and tagged .

BCBS features OKT on its blog

Reposted from Blue Cross Blue Shield A Healthier Michigan

Our Kitchen Table Addresses Food Justice in West Michigan

OKTHelping neighbors take control of the food they eat is the central mission of Grand Rapids’ Our Kitchen Table (OKT).

“Everybody has a right to good, nutritious food,” said Lisa Oliver-King, OKT Executive Director.

The grassroots, non-profit organization works with neighborhoods on the southeast side of the city to improve access to healthy foods. OKT does this through a variety of methods, including at-home gardening instruction and supplies, cooking workshops, nutrition classes, and the Southeast Area Farmers’ Market.

Organizers are also deeply invested in getting the word out about food access as a social justice issue. They hope residents take advantage of a free, five-week class that starts this Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014, titled Food Politics and the Food Justice Movement: Moving Forward.

According to OKT’s website, the class will investigate the current food system and food policy, look at food justice responses around the country, and discuss what a food justice and food sovereignty movement in West Michigan could look like.

“Our Kitchen Table isn’t just about growing your own food, but it’s about understanding the food system and your role in what that food system is,” Oliver-King said.

She explained that OKT works with people where they’re at. Not everyone wants to start their own container garden, although OKT is happy to help if they do. Even helping people understand food labels is a good start in enabling residents to take control of the food they’re putting in their bodies.

Once residents learn more about how to grow their own food or take a communal cooking or nutrition class, Oliver-King said they naturally want to learn more about the food systems in place in their communities. She said expanding knowledge about the inequalities in obtaining fresh, healthy food spurs many to then become interested in understanding public policy as it relates to food justice.

The organization must take into account a number of factors when they design curriculum neighbors will benefit from, but Oliver-King said residents often bring their own unique insights to classes as well.

“People know a lot more than what we’re willing to recognize and they share that with us,” she said.

The importance of addressing issues of food access can be seen in the many health challenges faced by children in the neighborhoods, including asthma and challenges with obesity and diabetes. Oliver-King said many times the food kids are eating is high-calorie, high-fat, and loaded with sugar.

Garden coaches work with residents on growing their own food, and show them how to incorporate those fresh ingredients into their cooking. The organization focuses on meatless meals, one-pot cooking, and raw foods, because these types of meals are often the most cost-effective to prepare. It’s also driven by utility and the fact that some residents who take advantage of the cooking programs might not be working with a fully functional kitchen. Some might be making a majority of their meals on a hot plate or even a coffeepot.

“It’s very important for us to understand that,” Oliver-King said.

If you want to learn more about food policy and food justice, as well as Our Kitchen Table, make sure to check out their free five-week class that starts this Saturday.

Photo credit: Megg

This entry was posted on December 1, 2014, in Press.