Our Kitchen Table’s Program for Growth, funded by Heart of West Michigan United Way, does its work through the lens of food justice. They define food justice as “the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed and eaten are shared fairly.”
Program for Growth seeks to rekindle food and gardening knowledge, inspire creativity, and return control in communities that have been robbed of their connection to traditional healthy ways of eating.
“It’s set up to empower our families,” said Della Levi, KSSN Community School Coordinator at Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Academy in Grand Rapids’ Baxter Neighborhood. “The dollars from United Way are very important for the Program for Growth, in order to build upon the skills and abilities of MLK families.”
At MLK, Program for Growth has two main components: a school vegetable garden and healthy eating workshops with field trips for parents, grandparents, and caregivers of pre-k and kindergarten students.
With the direction of OKT’s urban farmer, Kelsey Hakeem, the school’s student council did most of the planning for the garden, deciding which vegetables to plant and serving as its ambassadors within the school. Hakeem lives in the neighborhood with her two young children.
Levi says getting into the garden for the first time can be a revelatory experience for students, even outside of planned garden activities. For example, one day, when her team was short-handed and a few students not involved in the program were left waiting in the office, she brought them with her to tend to the garden. By the time the work was done, the students knew how deep to plant seeds, how much space to leave between plantings, and other gardening basics.
The Program for Growth/MLK garden has also strengthened connections between the school and its community. Students take produce home and share it with their families. Residents of Allen Manor, a nearby senior home, and members of Messiah Missionary Baptist Church across the street from the school drop by to check it out.
Levi says that neighbors are welcome to take produce. They are also welcome to support the garden in some way if they able. She has watched the garden become a source of pride for the neighborhood.
Everyone, including Levi and OKT’s executive director, Lisa Oliver-King, participates in the classes as students. “At any given moment in our group sessions, you don’t know who the leader is because this program empowers the parents and families to lead,” Levi says. “It’s a group effort.”
As a result of her participation, Levi has started her own garden, first with a couple of plants in buckets. During this past growing season, she upgraded to a raised bed garden.
“I was able to grow so much and share so much,” she says. “There is something about gardening that’s magical.”
“Because it’s natural,” adds La’Kenyia Hughes, a parent with three girls who attend MLK.
Hughes is also a garden coach in the program as well as a lunch and preschool aid at the school. She got involved in the program not only to improve her family’s health through better eating habits, but to address her own health issues, including asthma and hypertension.
“The Program for Growth has given me a broader insight on gardening, tips on healthy eating and opened my taste buds to foods and herbs I’ve never tried or heard of,” she says.
Program for Growth participant, Belinda Henderson, has two grandchildren currently attending MLK. (In all, she counts four children and more than 30 foster children.) She began growing her own food five years ago in OKT’s rooftop garden at the school. Through the Program for Growth, she has taken on the role of peer educator and garden coach, helping other participants grow their gardens and learn how to use the produce in simple and delicious meals.
Growing food has helped Henderson address her diverticulitis as well as improve her children’s and grandchildren’s healthy eating habits. Every Sunday, the whole family gathers at Belinda’s house to prep foods and cook meals for the week ahead. It’s one strategy she uses to make sure they all eat healthy – and staying away from junk and fast food so prevalent in their neighborhood.
“Mainly I’ve learned how to eat and live healthier by growing my own food, making my own salad dressing, and reading product labels,” she says. “I’m loving the family time we growers are sharing.”
Like the school garden, dietitian-led “Cook, Eat, and Talk” workshops give participants opportunities to learn by doing. They discover an appreciation for foods they’d never eaten before, for example, lentils, pigeon peas and fennel. Working with the dietician, Hughes has learned how to manage her hypertension and become a savvier shopper. She’s seen her children’s eating habits change as a result.
“Being part of Our Kitchen Table has impacted my family tremendously,” she says.
“I thought that was awesome,” says Hughes, who has since become a farmers market shopper.
LaTonya Turley, who has a grandson and a niece at the school, also gives OKT rave reviews. “It’s basically helping me and my grandkids eat healthier,” she says.
The program has inspired Turley to try different recipes in the kitchen and introduce new, healthy foods to her family.
“This program affords parents, guardians, and caregivers of our students an opportunity to learn more about food and nutrition, as well as growing food in our school garden and at their homes,” Levi concludes. “The Program for Growth has dramatically changed the lives of many people at our school and in the local community.”
PROGRAM FOR GROWTH ACCOMPLISHMENTS
With funding from Heart of West Michigan United Way, the Wege Foundation, State of Michigan, Amway Foundation, and a City of Grand Rapids Neighborhood Match Fund grant, Program for Growth at MLK school accomplished the following in 2019:
33 families harvested food from the garden.
15 participants volunteered to maintain the school-based food garden.
5 parents and caregivers were trained as food garden/cooking coaches.
51 participants grew their own food gardens.
38 participants were trained to do nutrition and environmental education.
29 parents/caregivers received basic health screenings and education about diet-related health disparities and chronic diseases.
51 participants completed food-mapping activities to better understand their neighborhood food landscape.
27 participants developed their own “Food Portfolio,” a plan to stretch their food budgets and increase access to healthier foods.
41 participants participated in cooking demonstrations and informational workshops.