OKT Urban Forester reveals secrets to eating from city’s bounty

Reposed from The Rapidian

by John Wiegand (jwiegand08) on Tuesday Apr 22nd, 2014 11:41am in NEWS


Listen to the audio interview here:

As soon as Laura Casaletto planted popcorn seeds in the backyard of her family’s urban home, her love for natural foods was born. Despite her efforts, she was awarded a crumby crop of corn- but the passion stuck. Now, Laura enjoys scouring the city’s natural areas for edible fare in an activity known as “urban foraging.”

Casaletto is an Urban Forester at Our Kitchen Table (OKT), a nonprofit organization focusing on food and social justice for low income neighborhoods. She often leads walks through Grand Rapids parks and works to educate the community on the benefits of eating directly from nature. Casaletto sees urban foraging as part of a larger picture of nutrition.

“A hundred years ago, a slice a bread was ten times as nutritious as it is now,” she says. “The way that we grow the food now doesn’t allow plants to pull up the trace minerals that they used to. When you forage this stuff it is nutritious. The plants are fighting the same germs that you are fighting and it strengthens your immune system.”

OKT will host an edible plant walk at Garfield Park on April 22, to coincide with Earth Day. The walk is free and open to the public.

Dorothy Griswold named new Southeast Area Farmers Market manager

SEAFM logoOKT has hired Dorothy Griswold as the new Market Manager for the Southeast Area Farmers Market. Dorothy has been working in the local food movement in Grand Rapids for 11 years. She actually helped to found the Southeast Area Farmers’ Market when it first opened.

Dorothy grew up near the Chesapeake Bay in Baltimore, Maryland. On Saturdays and Sundays, her family shopped farm stands to get produce for the week. “I never feel more at home, at peace or happy, than I do when I walk through the stalls of farmers markets,” she says. “I hope SEAFM can become just this kind of experience for the neighbors it serves.”

During a “farm market pilgrimage” to New York City, Dorothy explored the city’s Greenmarkets. She rode the subway for a day to visit the various markets and meet market managers, including one that operated at the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2001.


Dorothy Griswold

Dorothy has had a vegetable garden at every place she’s lived. She joined Trillium Haven Farm in its first year as a working shareholder and intern.  “I love to cook, especially ethnic dishes. I love learning about other cultures through their food,” she says. “I think fresh locally grown produce is beautiful and think photos of food should be on billboards and everywhere else you can think of!”


Catalyst Radio featured Our Kitchen Table on Feb. 28

Catalyst Radio: Our Kitchen Table teaching gardening for food security

by Catalyst Radio (Catalyst Radio) on Friday Feb 28th, 2014 02:45pm in NEWS in collaboration with Linda Gellasch and WYCE Radio 88.1 FM

Listen to the full INTERVIEW

In this episode of Catalyst Radio we visit with Lisa Oliver King of the environmental justice and food security nonprofit Our Kitchen Table.

Beginning next week, Our Kitchen Table is kicking off a number of programs, including the March 8 Cook, Eat & Talk event, “How to Plan Your Food Garden” talk by biochemist Clinton Boyd on March 15, and an educational series centering on food politics.

Lisa Oliver King is also in studio to also tell us about the recent grant awarded for Our Kitchen Table’s food diversity project.

W.K. Kellogg Foundation renews grant for OKT Food Diversity Project

Touring OKT in-yard food gardens. Photo courtesy W K Kellogg Foundation.

Touring OKT in-yard food gardens. Photo courtesy W K Kellogg Foundation.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has committed $300,000 to funding the Our Kitchen Table (OKT) Food Diversity Project for another three years. In 2010, the foundation granted the Grand Rapids grass-roots environmental justice organization $360,000 funding for an initial three-year period. The goal of the funded program is to strengthen the capacity of Grand Rapids’ southeast neighborhood residents to address food and environmental health disparities impacting vulnerable children and families. “We are so pleased that the Kellogg Foundation has chosen to continue funding OKT’s efforts on the Food Diversity Project. Hunger is a huge issue—but under-nutrition impacts even more of our neighbors, especially children,” says Lisa Oliver-King, executive director. “Our project reinvents the term “affordable food” to mean nutritious, fresh, health-sustaining food.”

OKT has been addressing these issues since 2003. Focused on creating an alternative healthy food system within the Eastown, Baxter, SECA/Southtown and Garfield Park neighborhoods, The Food Diversity Program includes a yard gardening program, the Southeast Area Farmers’ Market and advocacy for just food and environmental policies. The renewed grant will continue and expand this work.

Yard Gardens: OKT plans on growing an estimated 5,500 organic starter food plants in the new hoop house it is building with Well House. In 2011 and 2012, Molesta Floral allowed OKT space in its empty greenhouses. In 2013, it grew in the Blandford Farm greenhouse. OKT provides its gardeners with containers, organic soil, soil testing, gardening education, garden coaches and monthly events on foraging, preparing and preserving nutritious foods. In 2013, 17 yard gardeners each harvested an estimated 65 to 85 pounds of food.

Southeast Area Farmers’ Market: Since 2011, OKT has managed the market in two locations: Gerald R Ford Academic Center and Garfield Park. Though small, it offers a wide variety of locally grown, chemical- free produce, cottage kitchen goods and other items. In 2012, more than 1,100 residents visited the market resulting in more than $8,000 in sales—89% of sales were from food subsidy programs (SNAP, Double Up Food Bucks et al.).

Policy: OKT addresses policy issues through its website,, presentations at events and two, five-week educational series: Food Politics and the Food Justice Movement and The History of Food.

UIX Grand Rapids features OKT and executive director Lisa Oliver-King

Reposted from UIX Grand Rapids

In bustling urban populations, there is often a disconnect between the food people eat, and what they know about it. Lisa Oliver-King and Our Kitchen Table are trying to close that knowledge gap.

The small group of Our Kitchen Table facilitators that meet weekly in a small rented space on Burton Street takes on much larger responsibilities. Oliver-King and her cohort aspire to educate local residents, especially single mothers, on the best and most healthful ways to feed their families. They do this through creating school gardens, bicycle tours focused on local foraging, and setting up “Food Gardening Coaches” to help newly converted gardeners learn how to save seeds and grow year-round indoors.  And while the group itself originates from modest beginnings, Oliver-King said that is its strength, and what drives the members to help others.

“When I first got to Grand Rapids, I really had no ideas about gardening or growing food,” Oliver-King said. “But then after working with programs like the Greater Grand Rapids Food System Council and Well House, I became interested in growing my own food and sharing my experiences with others. I started to get to know the earth. I want to share this love, and the other members feel the same way. e don’t want to turn anyone away from experiencing fresh produce grown in an urban setting.”

Oliver-King has a background in public health and said she wants to spread OKT’s message of healthy environments and lifestyles throughout the community, its schools and families, and see that message get passed down to other generations. She started Our Kitchen Table in 2003 to help low income women build their capacity of participating, using an adapted version of a community transformation model.

“Learning begins with an understanding and analysis of the root causes of oppression and its manifestations in our daily lives,” Oliver-King said. “Elements of oppression have a structural, racial and gender bias, with disparities in wealth and power. It is believed that when women build individual capacity through participating in a self-empowerment model that emphasizes knowledge, purposeful action on both the individual and collective level, and leadership, they are then equipped with the understanding and skills to effectively assess their problems and seek solutions.”

The mission of OKT is to promote social justice and serve as a vehicle to empower female parents, caregivers and others to improve the health outcomes of their children through information, community organizing, and advocacy. To achieve the mission of programmatic goals of the agency is to build a viable neighborhood-based parent/caregiver led advocacy group.

OKT currently concentrates on Grand Rapids’ EastownBaxterGarfield Park and SECA neighborhoods, but connects with food growers throughout Grand Rapids.

“Our Kitchen Table’s main focus is public policy,” Oliver-King said. “Its Food Diversity Project addresses a subset of environmental justice: food justice. We address food justice by working alongside Grand Rapids residents to improve access to nutritious foods, specifically locally grown, chemical-free produce.”

The produce OKT helps people sow can help them address major health issues like diabetes, heart disease, obesity and asthma, Oliver-King said. And that ties to public policy, as the air pollution, lead levels and other contaminants found in Grand Rapids’ southeast neighborhoods contribute to these health issues.

“Traditional approaches aimed at addressing racial and ethnic health disparities among people of color and marginalized communities have included the delivery of services to improve the public health and healthcare environment of these populations,” Oliver-King said. “This approach, driven by professionals, relies on individual compliance and fails to equip the end users with the skills to make long-term changes to improve their health status.”

OKT provides support to at-risk women, including those with low-incomes, those who suffer from chronic diseases, substance abuse, the chronically unemployed, and children of low-income earners through a women led advocacy/social network.  Through building a social network and by incorporating the principles of a Community Transformational Organizing Strategy, Oliver-King said, OKT is able to build the capacity of these women resulting in them becoming advocates for themselves.

The organization promotes local activity and relationships through providing starter plants, compost, containers, garden education and garden coaches for the constituents it works with. OKT also participates in the Southeast Area Farmers’ Market, and organizes free community events on topics such as foraging, healthy cooking, canning, gardening, and composting.

“OKT builds strong genuine relationships with many community residents by tapping into local talents, emphasizing the discovery and benefits of accessing produce from locally grown food gardens and Grand Rapids’ edible landscape,” Oliver-King said. “In order to effectively create resident-owned and managed healthy food demonstration sites, an investment in creating long-term changes in racial/ethnic food and environmental health disparities must be grounded in a communal approach that builds community constituents’ capacity and provides them with the ability to identify problems and determine purposeful action and resolution.”

OKT has also been able to build a strong foundation with Grand Rapids Public Schools, specifically the Gerald R Ford and Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Academy schools. Oliver-King said, in 2012 and 2013, OKT grew an estimated 250 pounds of produce in school-based raised beds. And that produce was shared with over 45 school families. The group has also partnered with the Baxter Community Center, Kent County Juvenile Detention CenterThe Bloom CollectiveGrand Rapids Institute for Information DemocracyWell House, and Salvation Army’s teen parent program in growing food.

“In Grand Rapids, there are non-profits building food gardens for local residents, but OKT’s work differs in that neighborhood food growers are provided food transplants grown by OKT, organic compost that has been tested for heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, multiple soil tests due to historical uses of land in many of the neighborhoods selected by OKT, a food garden coach, and a food network to grow and share food with,” Oliver-King said. “OKT uses demonstration approaches that promote strong social networks, supports the aim of building individual and neighborhood capacity by incorporating views and perspectives of neighborhood residents in a fun and interactive manner, which presents opportunities to apply what is learned in a relatively short timeframe.”

OKT doesn’t support what Oliver-King calls “affordable food,” which refers to highly processed, calorie-dense, nutrient-poor, emergency sustenance, although she acknowledges that in transient housing, during natural disasters, and under threat of immediate starvation, this type of provision is important.

“For long-term health, this type of food leads to diminishing health outcomes,” she said. “It is economically burdensome. Processed food that is loaded with salt, fat, sugar, and little else is part of the reason why Americans, particularly low-income Americans and communities of color are plagued with excess morbidity and mortality.”

The future for OKT sees its program being used as a working model that will be used by others in Michigan and across the country.

“The reality is, citizens do not have influence over trade policies which directly impact the policies around land use, food pricing, food distribution, and others,” Oliver-King said. “Movement building is important because it pushes one’s consciousness about food and systemic challenges beyond an urban agricultural concept.”

Oliver-King cites Detroit as a good example of movement building.

“Food, arts, and environmental organizations have come together based on a shared vision around capacity building and justice work to ensure Detroiters have a right to sustainable nutritious food,” she said.

Grand Rapidians have a right to sustainable, nutritious food, too, and Oliver-King and OKT are here to make that right a reality.

OKT’s urban forester, Laura Casaletto, among GR’s first Citizen Forester graduates

(Left to Right)Denise Coykendaal, Laura Casaletto, Dotti Clune, Ben Oliver, Amanda St. Amour, and Ric Maycroft.

Friends of Grand Rapids Parks Urban Forest Project reported, “We’ve been growing advocates and neighborhood leaders as well. The first session of training opportunities wrapped up on July 24th with Urban Forestry and Tree Advocacy at LINC. At this training, a full six (6) program participants graduated as Grand Rapids’ first Citizen Foresters.

These six outstanding individuals not only attended the four courses to become a Citizen Forester, but have participated in additional workshops offered during the year and continue to express interest in attending more. 

These well -trained and educated advocates of the urban forest have led projects and continue to act as sources of information in their communities. As Citizen Foresters, these individuals can confidently engage and educate the community on tree concerns as representatives of the Urban Forest Project.”

‘Crack baby’ study ends with unexpected but clear result

Study finds that he stresses of poverty, not drug use, to blame.

Study finds that the stresses of poverty, not drug use, are the greater risk.

Reposted from

Note from OKT: This study shows that the stresses of violence and poverty are at the root of low income kids’ scholastic and behavorial challenges but does not address the factors of  (1) racism (an everyday stressor for African Americans); (2) toxic chemical exposure, which is higher in  neighborhoods of color and (3) lack of access to health foods experienced in low income neighborhoods. All of these factors also contribute to early labor, low birth weight and the very high mortality rates among African American infants right here in Kent County.

By Susan FitzGerald, For The Inquirer

POSTED: July 21, 2013

Jaimee Drakewood hurried in from the rain, eager to get to her final appointment at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Ever since her birth 23 years ago, a team of researchers has been tracking every aspect of her development – gauging her progress as an infant, measuring her IQ as a prechooler, even peering into her adolescent brain using an MRI machine.

Now, after nearly a quarter century, the federally funded study was ending, and the question the researchers had been asking was answered.

Did cocaine harm the long-term development of children like Jaimee, who were exposed to the drug in their mother’s womb?

The researchers had expected the answer would be a resounding yes. But it wasn’t. Another factor would prove far more critical.

A crack epidemic was raging in Philadelphia in 1989 when Hallam Hurt, then chair of neonatology at Albert Einstein Medical Center on North Broad Street, began a study to evaluate the effects of in-utero cocaine exposure on babies. In maternity wards in Philadelphia and elsewhere, caregivers were seeing more mothers hooked on cheap, smokable crack cocaine. A 1989 study in Philadelphia found that nearly one in six newborns at city hospitals had mothers who tested positive for cocaine.

Troubling stories were circulating about the so-called crack babies. They had small heads and were easily agitated and prone to tremors and bad muscle tone, according to reports, many of which were anecdotal. Worse, the babies seemed aloof and avoided eye contact. Some social workers predicted a lost generation – kids with a host of learning and emotional deficits who would overwhelm school systems and not be able to hold a job or form meaningful relationships. The “crack baby” image became symbolic of bad mothering, and some cocaine-using mothers had their babies taken from them or, in a few cases, were arrested.

It was amid that climate that Hurt organized a study of 224 near-term or full-term babies born at Einstein between 1989 and 1992 – half with mothers who used cocaine during pregnancy and half who were not exposed to the drug in utero. All the babies came from low-income families, and nearly all were African Americans.

Hurt hoped the study would inform doctors and nurses caring for cocaine-exposed babies and even guide policies for drug prevention, treatment, and follow-up interventions. But she never anticipated that the study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, would become one of the largest and longest-running studies of in-utero cocaine exposure.

One mother who signed up was Jaimee’s mom, Karen Drakewood. She was on an all-night crack binge in a drug house near her home in the city’s West Oak Lane section when she went into labor. Jaimee was born Jan. 13, 1990, weighing an even 7 pounds.

“Jaimee was beautiful when she was born. A head full of hair. She looked like a porcelain doll,” Karen Drakewood, now 51, said recently in her Overbrook kitchen. “She was perfect.”

But Drakewood knew looks could be deceiving.

“My worst fear was that Jaimee would be slow, mentally retarded, or something like that because of me doing drugs,” she said. She agreed to enroll her baby in the cocaine study at Einstein. Drakewood promised herself that she would turn her life around for the sake of Jaimee and her older daughter, but she soon went back to smoking crack.

Hurt arrived early at Children’s Hospital one morning in June to give a talk on her team’s findings to coworkers. After nearly 25 years of studying the effects of cocaine and publishing or presenting dozens of findings, it wasn’t easy to summarize it in a PowerPoint presentation. The study received nearly $7.9 million in federal funding over the years, as well as $130,000 from the Einstein Society.

Hurt, who had taken her team from Einstein to Children’s in 2003, began her lecture with quotations from the media around the time the study began. A social worker on TV predicted that a crack baby would grow up to “have an IQ of perhaps 50.” A print article quoted a psychologist as saying “crack was interfering with the central core of what it is to be human,” and yet another article predicted that crack babies were “doomed to a life of uncertain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.”

Hurt, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, is always quick to point out that cocaine can have devastating effects on pregnancy. The drug can cause a problematic rise in a pregnant woman’s blood pressure, trigger premature labor, and may be linked to a dangerous condition in which the placenta tears away from the uterine wall. Babies born prematurely, no matter the cause, are at risk for a host of medical and developmental problems. On top of that, a parent’s drug use can create a chaotic home life for a child.

Hurt’s study enrolled only full-term babies so the possible effects of prematurity did not skew the results. The babies were then evaluated periodically, beginning at six months and then every six or 12 months on through young adulthood. Their mothers agreed to be tested for drug use throughout the study.

The researchers consistently found no significant differences between the cocaine-exposed children and the controls. At age 4, for instance, the average IQ of the cocaine-exposed children was 79.0 and the average IQ for the nonexposed children was 81.9. Both numbers are well below the average of 90 to 109 for U.S. children in the same age group. When it came to school readiness at age 6, about 25 percent of children in each group scored in the abnormal range on tests for math and letter and word recognition.

“We went looking for the effects of cocaine,” Hurt said. But after a time “we began to ask, ‘Was there something else going on?’ ”

While the cocaine-exposed children and a group of nonexposed controls performed about the same on tests, both groups lagged on developmental and intellectual measures compared to the norm. Hurt and her team began to think the “something else” was poverty.

As the children grew, the researchers did many evaluations to tease out environmental factors that could be affecting their development. On the upside, they found that children being raised in a nurturing home – measured by such factors as caregiver warmth and affection and language stimulation – were doing better than kids in a less nurturing home. On the downside, they found that 81 percent of the children had seen someone arrested; 74 percent had heard gunshots; 35 percent had seen someone get shot; and 19 percent had seen a dead body outside – and the kids were only 7 years old at the time. Those children who reported a high exposure to violence were likelier to show signs of depression and anxiety and to have lower self-esteem.

More recently, the team did MRI scans on the participants’ brains. Some research has suggested that gestational cocaine exposure can affect brain development, especially the dopamine system, which in turn can harm cognitive function. An area of concern is “executive functioning,” a set of skills involved in planning, problem-solving, and working memory.

The investigators found one brain area linked to attention skills that differed between exposed and nonexposed children, but they could not find any clinically significant effect on behavioral tests of attention skills.

Drug use did not differ between the exposed and nonexposed participants as young adults. About 42 percent used marijuana and three tested positive for cocaine one time each.

The team has kept tabs on 110 of the 224 children originally in the study. Of the 110, two are dead – one shot in a bar and another in a drive-by shooting – three are in prison, six graduated from college, and six more are on track to graduate. There have been 60 children born to the 110 participants.

The years of tracking kids have led Hurt to a conclusion she didn’t see coming.

“Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine,” Hurt said at her May lecture.

Other researchers also couldn’t find any devastating effects from cocaine exposure in the womb. Claire Coles, a psychiatry professor at Emory University, has been tracking a group of low-income Atlanta children. Her work has found that cocaine exposure does not seem to affect children’s overall cognition and school performance, but some evidence suggests that these children are less able to regulate their reactions to stressful stimuli, which could affect learning and emotional health.

Coles said her research had found nothing to back up predictions that cocaine-exposed babies were doomed for life. “As a society we say, ‘Cocaine is bad and therefore it must cause damage to babies,’ ” Coles said. “When you have a myth, it tends to linger for a long time.”

Deborah A. Frank, a pediatrics professor at Boston University who has tracked a similar group of children, said the “crack baby” label led to erroneous stereotyping. “You can’t walk into a classroom and tell this kid was exposed and this kid was not,” Frank said. “Unfortunately, there are so many factors that affect poor kids. They have to deal with so much stress and deprivation. We have also found that exposure to violence is a huge factor.”

Frank said that cocaine – along with other illicit drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes – “isn’t good for babies,” but the belief that they would “grow up to be addicts and criminals is not true. Some kids have stunned us with how well they’ve done.”

Jaimee Drakewood came to her last visit at Children’s with her 16-month-old son KyMani in tow. It was the 31st time she had met with the researchers.

“We do appreciate everything you’ve done, because it’s not easy to get to all these appointments,” said team member Kathleen Dooley, as she handed Drakewood a framed certificate of appreciation. “We are proud of you and we feel you are family, because you are.”

The team plans to stay in touch with study participants each year. They have started a new study that uses MRI and other tools to explore the neural and cognitive effects of poverty on infant development.

“Given what we learned,” Hurt said, “we are invested in better understanding the effects of poverty. How can early effects be detected? Which developing systems are affected? And most important, how can findings inform interventions for our children?”

The team considers Jaimee and her mother, Karen, among their best success stories. Jaimee is heading into her senior year at Tuskegee University in Alabama and hopes to become a food inspector. She is home for the summer with her son and working as a lifeguard at a city pool.

After a few starts and stops, including a year in jail, Karen Drakewood is off drugs and works as a residential adviser at Gaudenzia House. Her older daughter just received a master’s degree at Drexel University; her son is a student at Florida Atlantic University. Even in the worst moments, Karen Drakewood said she tried to show her kids “what their future could hold.” “If a child sees the light, they will follow it.”

Jaimee Drakewood credits her big sister and mother for keeping her on track. “I’ve seen my mom at her lowest point and I’ve seen her at her highest. That hasn’t stopped me from seeing the superwoman in her regardless of where she was at,” Jaimee said.

Despite her family’s history, Jaimee believes she and her siblings are “destined to have accomplishments, to be greater than our parents.”

Susan FitzGerald, a former Inquirer reporter, has written periodically about the cocaine study. Now an independent journalist, she is coathor of a parenting book, Letting Go With Love and Confidence and can be reached at .