Our Kitchen Table: Diverse, Stable Food Systems

Our Kitchen Table, now in their fourth year, works to help families form sustainable food systems -- starting in their own backyard. This year, OKT has received a $360,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation "to strengthen the capacity of southeast urban neighborhood residents in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to address food and environmental health disparities impacting vulnerable children, families, and individuals by creating resident owned gardens and managed Healthy Food Demonstration Sites."

Outside of a press release, what does this mean, exactly? In a conversation with Executive Director Lisa Oliver-King, she explains the mission of OKT and what they hope to accomplish with these new funds. A quick explanation is that OKT connects food-growers, that is, residents in various neighborhoods who can grow food in their own gardens, and then share with other growers producing different foods.

Experienced food growers act as coaches, and OKT teaches seed-saving, alternate growing methods, drought-resistant growing and they are moving to year-round growing.

"Growing food is a long-term process," Oliver-King says, "not a short-term process. Really understanding the land, the impacts of weather and understanding water -- there's a lot that's involved in growing food, even for yard growers. We're trying to expand a collective sharing approach, one where folks can grow food together from a buddy stem approach, from a food diversity approach."

Food diversity is important. Oliver-King says there are many types of even one kind of produce -- tomatoes, for instance -- that can suitable for a multitude of uses. If you have tomatoes that are good for salsas, meeting a grower who has tomatoes good for sandwiches or salads can diversity your food options. And creating a sustainable and diverse food system is OKT's business, especially for those who may not otherwise be able to afford quality produce.

"We work in low-income neighborhoods, with single female households with small children," Oliver-King says. "We found that the whole notion of food growing from a collective perspective strengthens and supports, and overcomes the challenges that many of these families are faced with."

While OKT has food growers throughout the city, OKT is currently focused in four primary neighborhoods -- Eastown, Baxter, Garfield Park and SECA. Oliver-King says food, security and environmental challenges are not the only struggles these neighborhoods face.

"When we look at building political and economic power, (these neighborhoods) are in the third ward with the lowest voting rate," Oliver-King says. 

OKT also focuses on health and nutrition, especially where access to healthy food by growing may not be enough. There are the issues of storage, what to do with leftovers or an over-abundance of a particular crop. Some families may not have functional kitchens. OKT teaches about composting and finding meals that can be cooked in low-tech situations. A garden coach may be assigned to a family to help them become stable and self-reliant.

Individuals with specific health concerns are also taken into consideration. When OKT began working with the Greater Grand Rapids Food System Council in conjunction with a planning grant provided by the USDA, OKT surveyed 450 households to "figure out how do people identify food through the lens of power and justice." While asking questions like where and how did these households get food, they learned a lot more. They learned that there were food growers, but these growers did not necessarily talk or share with one another. A family from Greece had been growing grape leaves from their home country since 1950, and other families had native food brought from Jamaica and Ethiopia.

"We met an African American family addressing health issues," Oliver-King says. "African American males in their family were being diagnosed with high blood pressure at the age of 10-13, so they turned 75 percent of their yard into a garden."

In Eastown, OKT discovered a generational garden, first started by a grandmother and later tended to by the grandchildren.

"Just by walking through and talking to people about the role of food their lives, (residents) were able to talk to us from a historic perspective, from a food self-reliance perspective," Oliver-King says.

With the new funding, OKT has clear goals including hosting a community kitchen for those who may not have suitable kitchens for home cooking and creating a cookbook to address various cooking situations and challenges.

OKT also looks to partner with farmers' markets, and expand and connect gardens across the SE side of the city. Creating a food system in a neighborhood could help farmers' markets to know what neighborhood gardens cannot produce and what there is a demand for.

"We're hoping to add a mobile market, creating a food basket made up of fresh produce as well as fresh food created from yard gardens -- salsa, soups, sauces, things like that," Oliver-King says. "We'll deliver those baskets to folks in neighborhoods that are challenged with environmental and health disparities."

OKT is also plans to grow 200-300 starter plants available on a sliding scale basis to food growers. OKT will help them plant the starter plants as well.

Discussion is available at a follow-up meeting to a previous community forum on Feb. 19 from 10 a.m. until noon at the Eastown Neighborhood Association (415 Ethel St. SE). Gardening classes start on March 5 at the SECA (1409 Madison Ave. SE) from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. for those looking to prepare and begin a food garden.

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.

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