As it prepares to disband, Michigan task force on COVID racial disparities leaves a healthy legacy

Reposted from Second Wave Michigan

This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Black Michiganders were among the hardest hit in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, representing 29% of COVID-19 cases and 41% of COVID-19 deaths despite being only 15% of the state’s population. In April 2020, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. By the end of September 2020, Michigan’s Black residents made up only 8% of cases and 10% of deaths.

“When that change happened, we were able to flatten the curve,” says task force member Renee Canady, CEO of the Michigan Public Health Institute (MPHI). “But more importantly, we were able to build and strengthen community voice and how government responds to the needs of individuals, needs they face all the time.”

This dramatic reduction in disparities involved creating more opportunities for testing within communities, connecting people of color with primary care providers, improving contact tracing and isolation strategies, promoting safe reengagement, and utilizing trusted community leaders in the broadcast of reliable COVID-19 information. Now, as the task force prepares to disband, its members are looking back on the work they’ve accomplished and the groundwork they’ve laid for continued progress toward dismantling health disparities in Michigan.

“Collectively as a task force, I was amazed at the level of commitment and dedication. … We had to problem solve and think deeply,” Canady says. “As a public health professional my entire career, seeing community engage and build partnerships at this deeply authentic level was absolutely inspiring and motivating for me. It really was about execution and action and change.”

Comprised of 23 Michiganders from diverse locations, backgrounds, sectors, and ethnicities, the task force was directed to increase transparency in reporting COVID’s racial and ethnic impacts, remove barriers to accessing health care, reduce medical bias in testing and treatment, mitigate environmental and infrastructure factors that exacerbated mortality, and improve systems for physical and mental health care as well as long-term economic recovery. To accomplish these directives, members of the task force joined other community leaders in workgroups focused on strategic testing infrastructure, primary provider connections, centering equity, telehealth access, and environmental justice. Task force member Jametta Lilly, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network, says the task force’s reports in November 2020 and February 2022 show that the workgroups became “fast-moving entities” that identified goals at the community and statewide levels. 

“We brought together people who don’t necessarily plan together — community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, hospital administrators, academic administrators,” she says.

Overcoming roadblocks to telehealth

Lilly sat on both the Primary Provider Connections and Telehealth Access work groups. While increasing telehealth opportunities enabled people across the state to receive medical and mental health care during COVID shutdowns, the modality also underscored the reality of the digital divide.  

“An accomplishment is the work that’s been done to recognize how the digital divide exacerbated the death and mayhem that we saw, whether that was in health, in education, in all of our social services, in access to food, and in the employment market,” Lilly says. “There was a recognition that the digital divide had to be addressed if we were going to create structural change not only to address COVID but also to move the state of Michigan forward.”

The Telehealth workgroup’s efforts were in part responsible for a subsequent gubernatorial executive order that called for expanded high-speed internet access for all Michiganders, and an ensuing state investment of $3.3 million to realize that goal.

Rooting out implicit bias

Following another recommendation from the task force, a July 2020 gubernatorial executive order directed the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) to require implicit bias training for health care professionals licensed and registered in the state.

“It takes a level of courage and investment to start the journey, to say, ‘This is not acceptable,’” Canady says. “We do have evidence of bias, experiences of community members, partners, and patients. We’re not willing, as Michiganders, to look the other way on this. A one-hour training is not going to disrupt decades of socialization. But our hope, and certainly my hope as a member of the task force, is that it will whet the appetites of clinicians, employers, and civil servants in Michigan to say, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize this. I need to learn more. I need to think about what we should be doing differently.’”

Task force member Denise Brooks-Williams, senior vice president and CEO of market operations at Henry Ford Health (Henry Ford), acknowledges that Henry Ford was invited to the table because of its long history of trying to eliminate health disparities, in part by requiring its staff to complete implicit bias training.

“Amongst the task force’s many accomplishments was putting a culturally diverse lens around marketing and how we try to attract people to health services,” Brooks-Williams says. “As we moved into having vaccines available but seeing a low response among those wanting to have them, [it] really did take time to invest in some multicultural marketing resources. They did a really good job. That will pay dividends for a long time.”

Canady hopes that, in addition to requiring implicit bias training, the state will be able to measure significant changes and greater awareness, knowledge, and understanding of the unresolved consequences of bias and discrimination.

“We need to think differently about systemic inequities and how to maintain relationships across disciplines,” Canady says. “It’s not just the Department of Health and Human Services’ responsibility. It’s not just LARA pushing on people’s licenses to practice. It really is all of us in partnership together.”

Health care in community

The Primary Provider Connections workgroup sought to remove barriers to care by making health care more accessible. Strategies for doing so included creating test and vaccination sites within trusted neighborhood locations like churches and schools, developing mobile clinics, and involving trusted community leaders as ambassadors of reliable pandemic health information. Brooks-Williams reports that Henry Ford’s mobile clinics will continue post-pandemic as a much-needed resource for communities that lack primary care locations. Another plus is that various community stakeholders are now connected in conversation.

“We’ve now got community agencies talking with health systems, talking with the health departments, talking with the state, in a way that we probably didn’t before,” Brooks-Williams says. “If we keep those conversations going in our communities, that will help.”

Lilly says one key area for improvement is in quality care coordination – creating a primary care system where primary care providers, Federally Qualified Health Centers, community health workers, and hospitals are integrated into an accessible continuum of health and well-being for all.

“That’s our nirvana,” she says. “But that’s not the system we have in the United States.”

Funding will be a priority

Much of the task force’s work was funded with COVID relief dollars. Task force members hope that when those funds dry up, those making budgetary decisions at the federal and state levels will continue to fund successful developments like telehealth, mobile clinics, implicit bias training, and culturally competent messaging.

“We are all saying that we need to have a more robust public health system that gets funded adequately, not just because we suddenly find ourselves in a pandemic,” Lilly says. “Now that our public health systems have readiness, I think we are in a much better place. The Federally Qualified Health Centers are in a much better place. There are mobile clinics and electronic health systems that have the capability of talking to each other.”

While the task force will disband in the near future, members hope that their legacy and work will continue to reduce racial disparities in health care and on other fronts such as education, employment, and economic opportunity.

“Relationships don’t end when a committee ends or when a conference is over. They’re fortunately transportable,” Canady says. “I believe that those relationships will continue as we all, in our individual areas of responsibility, continue to try to execute on the things we learned on the task force.”

Lilly adds that now it’s time to assess the lessons learned from the task force’s work.

“What are the gaps? What are we doing about them?” she asks. “What is so encouraging is that [the Whitmer] administration understands that we have to look very closely at what are the policies that either enable or perpetuate [disparities], or can possibly be a vehicle to create the systemic change we need.”

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children’s books. You can contact her at or

Renee Canady photo by Roxanne Frith. Jametta Lilly photo by Nick Hagen. Denise Brooks-Williams photo courtesy of Denise Brooks-Williams.

Happy Holidays!

Thanks to our food growers, market vendors, food growing coaches, and community partners, Our Kitchen Table has one more successful growing and market season under out belts.

Special thanks to the Grand Rapids Public Schools Martin Luther King Leadership Academy for continuing to host our Program for Growth, Kentwood Glenwood Elementary for hosting a food garden, City of Grand Rapids Parks department for support of the Southeast Area Farmers Market, and the many others who contributed to the 2022 growing and market season.

Would you like to support OKT with your
end of year giving?
Gifts are tax-deductible.

Our Kitchen Table relies on grants and donations to fund its programming. If you would like to contribute,
please click on this link or email your check to:

Our Kitchen Table
334 Burton St. SE
Grand Rapids MI 49507

OKT’s Lisa Oliver-King featured in story on food insecurity

Reposted from Rapid Growth Media

“It is great to grow food, but more importantly when we begin to look at the landscape, how do we understand policy?” Lisa Oliver-King

RG Community Connect: Collaboration is key in working toward a more just food system in Kent County


If you feel stretched by the increase in food prices in recent months, you are not alone. As inflation affects food costs across the country, more and more people are food insecure. According to the White House National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, “there is no silver bullet to address these complex issues and there is no overnight fix. Making progress requires collective, sustained action and mobilization across every segment of society.” That document, plus a newly updated Michigan Good Food (MI GF) Charter by Michigan State University, are poised to guide important changes to our current food system — one where “junk food”: high-calorie, low-nutrient food is more affordable than nutrient-dense “whole” foods like fruits, nuts and vegetables.  

While national changes are sure to be difficult in this partisan climate, these documents both provide a clear framework for smaller, local organizations to collaborate toward more resilient food systems and echo the work that is already being done. The MI GF Charter “calls for systemic change by supporting food systems that ensure food is accessible to everyone, promote healthy communities, use fair and sustainable production methods and support a diverse and equitable society.” 

It is encouraging that this type of work is currently happening in our community. “It’s a tension between meeting immediate needs and long-term, systemic solutions,” says Janelle Vandergrift, co-chair of the recently formed Kent County Food Policy Council (KCFPC). “Because immediate needs are so great right now it can take so much of our attention, but we still need to be able to zoom out and look at the system as a whole and see what needs to change,” she says. The Food Policy Council is set to begin work on a countywide community food assessment with the hope that the process will involve a lot of community feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of our current system.  

Despite the myriad challenges, Wende Randall, director of the Kent County Essential Needs Task Force, finds room for hope. “I am energized by the coming together of grassroots groups, exploring how close neighborhoods or small groups can work together and some larger organizations activating practices of food justice that support local businesses and families,” she says.  

For the Good Food team at Access of West Michigan, systemic change in the charitable food system has been a top priority for the past five years, as it works to educate and collaborate alongside partners focusing on the importance of dignified access to healthy, affordable, culturally relevant food.  

One of its programs, Refresh Now, is a collaboration with two local health clinics to run a fresh fruit and vegetable prescription program that helps patients with chronic disease or high-risk factors access nourishing foods. “Food as medicine projects have the potential for making a significant impact on public health, especially in communities with significant health disparities,” says Randall.  

Another exciting project is a collaboration between New City Farm and Fresh Markets that we helped launch over the past five years. These are hyperlocal, innovative food retail sites in low food balance areas of Kent County. This project has been powerful as it has been influenced by and designed with community member feedback —  due to being able to share space with individuals who frequent the Fresh Markets and get direct feedback on what could be done better, what they want to have available in the markets from local farms and how the Fresh Markets can continue to be a beacon of health in their neighborhoods. 

Lisa Oliver King and Julie BrunsonOne of the most active organizations doing important grassroots work in Grand Rapids is Our Kitchen Table (OKT). Founded in 2005 as a mobilizing group for moms around the dangers of lead and radon in homes, Executive Director, Lisa Oliver-King continued conversations in her community and quickly realized that a major injustice was food. Since 2010 when they received their first grant, OKT has worked tirelessly on the southeast side of the city. Oliver-King stressed the importance of being active in your community. While growing food and teaching community members about healthy cooking is a tool they use, Oliver-King stresses that “the justice lens … is crucial.” 

“It is great to grow food, but more importantly when we begin to look at the landscape, how do we understand policy?,” she says. “The reality is you are always bumping up against policy. You need to show up at city commission and county commission meetings. How can we build a collective influence to bring about the change we want to see?”

As most have learned through experience, “being a part of systems work is realizing there are many entry points, not just one,” says Vandergrift. It is important to find your passion and start there. As a community member on the KCFPC, Samika Douglas is looking forward to “sharing the needs of the community and the barriers they are facing, as well as advocating for resources and services that are so needed.” Randall emphasized the need for shared language in this work and being able “to consider the assets of the community rather than just the deficits.” 

As the trajectory to reimagining more equitable food systems advances, the community must keep moving forward. Many of the most successful programs happening locally are those that prioritize resident feedback from and are authentically driven by the needs of those most affected by issues of food security. “While there is a lot of good work in our community being done, it is important to remember that in working on multi-levels, things might not happen as fast as you would like for them to happen,” says Oliver-King. “But, figuring out how you can still support the work in some kind of way because the more of a puzzle that we fit together, the better off our community is. We are all individual pieces that must connect to bring about those changes that will address the issue of being food insecure.” 

Photos courtesy of Our Kitchen Table and Access of West Michigan

Gratia Lee is the Good Food Systems Director at Access of West Michigan. She moved back to MI in June 2021 and looks forward to engaging with the community around shared goals of increased health equity and improved food access. She is passionate about the environment and sees food as an important entry point to connect people to one another and our planet.

Michigan Immigrant Rights Center continues fight against egg producers who put workers at risk

Lawsuit Against West Michigan Egg Farm and Labor Contractor Proceeds in Court

Content from MIRC

While COVID-19 has faded in urgency for many Michiganders, farmworkers are still fighting for justice after they were left unprotected and exposed to the virus in the early days of the pandemic. In March and April of 2020, as the virus was spreading in Michigan, essential workers Juana, Juan Carlos, and Margarita were hired to work at Sunrise Acres, a large egg producing and processing facility in Hudsonville, Michigan. They were hired by farm labor contractor C&C West Poultry operated by Armando and Joel Cardona Coronado. While working at Sunrise Acres they became infected with COVID-19 and fell seriously ill. 

At a time when most Americans were heeding the guidance of public health professionals, C&C West Poultry and Sunrise Acres chose not to implement policies that would halt the spread of the highly contagious virus and safeguard their workforce from COVID-19. “We were practically working shoulder to shoulder because the lines are very tight,” said Juana. The management at Sunrise Acres put forth superficial policies with zero implementation, and failed to satisfy the duties to workers outlined by Governor Whitmer’s Executive Orders and the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA). They did not provide personal protective equipment, claimed the company was implementing social distancing in workspaces where it was not physically possible, and took a lax approach to taking temperatures and monitoring symptoms of entering laborers.  They failed to take meaningful precautions to protect the health and well-being of the workers who kept them in business during the pandemic.

Juana and Margarita bravely brought a lawsuit against C&C West Poultry and Sunrise Acres to hold them accountable for failing to protect their workers from contracting COVID-19. The workers are represented by the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, a nonprofit law center that advocates for the rights of immigrants and farmworkers. Sunrise Acres and Joel Cardona Coronado tried to have Juana, Margarita, and Juan Carlos’ claims dismissed in court, attempting to intimidate the workers and dissuade them from continuing with their case. Joel Cardona Coronado further tried and failed to convince the judge that he did not bear responsibility. Sunrise Acres and their president and owner William Patmos, sought to be dismissed from the case and the judge denied the motion. In an important victory for Juana, Juan Carlos, and Margarita, the Ottawa court decided the case will proceed. This sends an important message to unscrupulous and negligent contractors and employers who fail to protect the health and safety of essential immigrant workers. 

“I felt like I was treated like I was disposable, working based on their necessity, not mine,” said Juana. Despite the dangerous conditions, she continued to work because “we all need to work and to take care of our needs, to take care of our family.”

“While this lawsuit started during the COVID-19 pandemic, really it brings to light a common theme we see among our clients,” said Gonzalo Peralta, the MIRC attorney representing the workers. “The health and welfare of farmworkers is too frequently not taken seriously by employers. No matter who you are or where you’re from, we all deserve safe and healthy workplaces. Workers should be able to count on their employers to take proper precautions to ensure their well-being. We are grateful to Juana, Margarita, and Juan Carlos for speaking up to ensure the rights of workers are protected.”

Workers who have questions about their rights can call MIRC’s free confidential Farmworker and Immigrant Worker hotline at 800-968-4046.


Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) is a statewide legal resource center for Michigan’s immigrant communities that works to build a thriving Michigan where immigrant communities experience equity and belonging. MIRC’s work is rooted in three pillars: direct legal services, systemic advocacy, and community engagement and education. MIRC’s Farmworker and Immigrant Worker Rights practice focuses on representing farmworkers with their employment and civil rights matters and specializes in cases at the intersection of workplace and immigrant rights. 

MEJC “Tell DTE no more rate hikes!”

Last day to submit public comment is November 8th!

DTE is asking the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) for permission to raise residential rates 8.8% – without a plan to upgrade outdated infrastructure in older communities that are majority Black, people of color, or low-income. Their plan gives millions more to investors each year, and makes it even harder for communities to switch to solar and access battery storage.Your voice makes a difference. Tell the MPSC to reject DTE’s rate hike — and support affordable, reliable, pollution-free energy.

Submit Public Comment Here!

Final 2022 farmers market Saturday Nov. 5

This Saturday wraps up the 2022 season for the Southeast Area Farmers Market. We hope you will stop by to support our vendors. Our community partner will be the Kent County Food Policy Council. Chat with them about what you can do in your neighborhood to help build a better, local, equitable food system that meets everyone’s nutritional needs. Healthy food is a human right!