Lisa Oliver-King came to Grand Rapid’s Our Kitchen Table (OKT) with no gardening background, yet she was leading an agency that taught people to grow their own food. Today, she’s an avid gardener who dreams of expanding OKT’s gardening, farm market and outreach projects so that no one is turned away.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Lisa Oliver-King, Executive Director of Our Kitchen Table:
I don’t really feel like a leader because we are not doing something that is brand new here. Food plants and seeds come from God and it is simply our responsibility to respond and connect with that to create the gardens that help people become more self-sustainable. We have a saying here called “seek to understand and then to be understood” and that is how I practice my leadership. I need to seek to understand how to best communicate so I can do what is best for OKT because what works for one group may not work for another. For instance, we talk about creating gardens and that’s working out great in our targeted neighborhoods, but we do more to educate, like taking bicycle tours around them to see fruit and nut trees and plants in their own areas. They are amazed to find out how many nut trees there are. And that those dark spots on the ground are actually mulberries that fell from a mulberry tree.
What is your dream for kids?
My dream for kids is that they are able to run down the street and grab a handful of mulberries or raspberries, eat them and to continue their play and have fun. My dream for kids is that they are able to run down the street and grab a handful of mulberries or raspberries, eat them and to continue their play and have fun.
I just love watching them learn. When you can see in a child’s face what they have learned about nature from this program; their eyes are opened. Once they know what nature provides, they become much more respectful of the environment. They throw down less trash, they decide to play in a park just because raspberries grow there. When it rains, they say things like “Mom, God is watering our plants!” They form such an appreciation for nature.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
One key thing that people need to know is – historically – how their land has been used. Every agricultural project should start with a review (we go back 40 years) but knowing what contaminants are present – like lead and arsenic – is good for everyone, everywhere to know, not just OKT gardeners. It’s about staying healthy and helping people learn different ways to stay healthy. For us, if we find out that the setting used to be an industrial site, we can find out what kind of industry it was to determine what kinds of contaminants to look for. For example, one of our Grand Rapids sites used to be fruit orchards, so we tested the soil for things like pesticides and fertilizers.
How do you know you are making progress?
People keep showing up! Around 85 percent of our growers come to OKT workshops consistently. And our Food Gardening Coaches visit the gardens at least once a week when it’s warm and once a month when it’s cold, after they bring their herbs inside. Those coaches are finding that growers are becoming much more comfortable with growing as time passes. We teach them how to stick their hands in the dirt to see if the plants need watering because it tells them much more than just brushing the top of the soil and finding it dry – it might not be dry underneath and it might not need the watering they were going to give it.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the fact that I took a leap of faith when I got to OKT. I have a background in public health, and I was not a food grower then, and I wondered what kind of credibility I could offer the people we serve. So, I just shut up and I listened to the people who did know what they were doing. I listened, I touched the earth and now my daughters and I have our own raised bed gardens. We grow greens, lettuces, radishes, carrots, and fruits. I started experiencing that incredible feeling that I see our growers experience by learning how it happens to them. I have always eaten nutritious foods, such as produce from farmers in my family, but I had never seen a food plant. I didn’t know a broccoli plant from a carrot plant from a weed because I had never seen it grow. Now I do. Now I know that incredible feeling right alongside the people that OKT serves.
What keeps you awake at night?
Not being able to reach enough people and help everyone who wants our help. People call all the time [from outside targeted neighborhoods] because they have heard of our gardening project and they want our help to learn to grow their own food. It’s just not enough to send them to our website for instructions or tell them to read a book because food is very personal and a piece of paper is not a hand. I only have so many resources, but I don’t ever want to turn anyone down, no matter where they live. So many people need us.
I only have so many resources, but I don’t ever want to turn anyone down, no matter where they live. So many people need us.