Our Kitchen Table
With Farmers’ Markets, cooking classes, and home gardening instruction, Our Kitchen Table is turning the tide for people living in Grand Rapids neighborhoods that had limited options for buying fresh, healthy food. This compact nonprofit is also addressing other health and social justice issues, like lead poisoning and air quality.
Michigan Nightlight: In your view, what makes your program innovative, effective or remarkable?
Our Kitchen Table Communications Officer Stelle Slootmaker:
Our Kitchen Table is addressing food insecurity through a justice lens. Our goal is to not only increase access to healthy foods, specifically fresh produce, but also to work side by side with the community to build power and capacity that results in the community creating their own alternative food system. We have four targeted neighborhoods in Grand Rapids that were chosen because of limited access to fresh foods. We’re working with those people so that they can grow their own foods – they are assigned garden coaches and garden buddies for this. We are growing the starter plants (about 7,000 of them) in a greenhouse right now. Most people plant container gardens because so many rent. They can take their gardens along with them if they move.
What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
People in our targeted neighborhoods are looking for ways to access healthier foods; they welcome the presence of the farmers’ markets we ran and the gardening opportunities we offer. It’s not that people don’t want to eat healthy – Our Kitchen Table recognizes that it’s not a matter of making poor choices. People in our targeted neighborhoods are looking for ways to access healthier foods; they welcome the presence of the farmers’ markets we ran and the gardening opportunities we offer. It’s not that people don’t want to eat healthy – Our Kitchen Table recognizes that it’s not a matter of making poor choices.
But if you don’t have a car and you’re eating from the corner store, you are at risk for diabetes, heart problems, obesity, asthma and other diseases poor nutrition contributes to. We have two farmers’ markets in the heart of the targeted areas, within walking distance. They are open from the first week of June until the end of October.
What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
How to work with our Southeast Area Farmers’ Market partners when facing the realities of institutional racism.
What really differentiates this program?
We are not telling people how to eat – giving them a vegetable and telling them they should eat this. People want to eat healthy and they know about healthy food. We are working at increasing access through a model called “Popular education” and the urban foraging of fruit and nut trees is a part of the growing food system. There are apple trees and nut trees in the area that no one is picking and that’s important for people to know.
What are the keys to success for your program?
It’s about communication. Keeping it real. Working side by side with the neighborhood residents – not “us vs. them.” It’s about having team members that work extremely hard because they are totally invested in the work. We continue education all year long; for example, there are some plants, like herbs, that can come into the house after growing season ends. We hold events called “Cook, Eat and Talk,” where chefs come in and demonstrate recipes; we have fun with that and eat the meal. It is our hope that eventually we can turn this over to the neighborhoods because they won’t need us anymore. Success is also about political education. We are trying to influence the City of Grand Rapids to plant more fruit and nut trees as they plant trees and on the local level, we are going to address the local composting ordinance. Nationally, we are addressing the 2012 Farm Bill because the way it is written now, it will hurt people who get help from the government to buy food.
How does race or diversity affect the work of your program?
Environmental justice and food justice, rather the lack thereof, are rooted in institutional racism. Our neighborhoods are heavily populated with people of color, and if you look where many people of color live, it’s next to the incinerator, the industry spewing out pollution. Environmental justice and food justice, rather the lack thereof, are rooted in institutional racism. Our neighborhoods are heavily populated with people of color, and if you look where many people of color live, it’s next to the incinerator, the industry spewing out pollution.
These areas are horrendously impacted by pollution and it's not only the air, but the homes they live in. They tend to be older homes, lots of them with lead paint, so lead poisoning is a danger. The soil can be full of lead and arsenic, so that’s another reason for container gardens or raised gardens in those neighborhoods. So there’s lack of access to healthy foods, health problems caused by that and pollution – then you throw in the stress of having to wake up every day in a racist society. That’s difficult because we like to pretend that we are post-racism, but the truth is that racism is still everywhere you turn.