Grant Funding Empowers Expanded Food Justice Efforts in Grand Rapids’ Neighborhoods  

Julie Bitely

| 3 min read

Mom making a salad with her daughter
For some Grand Rapids residents, growing a garden doesn’t just mean a bumper crop of tomatoes and greens at harvest time, it means taking back control of what’s on the dinner table. Since 2003, Our Kitchen Table has been empowering families in four Grand Rapids neighborhoods – Garfield Park, Southtown, Eastown and Baxter – to grow their own food. The organization formed to address high levels of lead in the area. Homes in the neighborhoods sit on land previously used for farming, with pesticides leaving concentrated levels of lead in the soil. Increased consumption of fruits and vegetables has been shown to counteract the effects of lead. The organization’s mission today includes addressing food insecurity, food justice, nutrition and oral health among women and their families through gardening and services supporting health.

Pandemic drives renewed interest in gardening

Demand for Our Kitchen Table’s services has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, said executive director Lisa Oliver-King. With families stuck at home and looking for ways to improve their health, Oliver-King said the number of households the organization served over the summer through a container gardening program nearly doubled. A $34,000 grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation will help Our Kitchen Table expand peer educator training, which will further help the organization keep up with increased demand. Oliver-King said empowering families with knowledge is a step toward food justice for underserved areas.  “The closer you are to your food in its natural state, the more nutritious it is,” she said. “The closer you are to your food, the more control you have over it.”

Education inspires a healthy connection to food

Through Our Kitchen Table’s Educate to Elevate programming, peer educators help families learn to grow their own nutritious foods and cook with them. They also show healthier ways to cook favorite dishes and introduce new produce to families so they can expand their palates and preferences for healthy foods. Peer educators also help expectant moms understand the relationship the food they eat has on the health of their growing baby. Greens with calcium can help babies’ bones grow strong, for example. Della Levi started growing veggies and herbs in small pots in 2018, inspired by Our Kitchen Table’s Program for Growth, which partners with local schools to teach children about gardening and where food comes from. Levi’s efforts expanded to raised beds in 2019 and designated garden space in 2020 with more raised beds. “Growing your own produce is magical,” Levi said. “Not only does food taste better, but it also looks better.” Her intense interest in growing her own food is rooted in heritage as well. “The other reason why I grow produce is to pay homage to my ancestors and elders. Black farmers were instrumental in the freedom movement for African Americans in America,” Levi explained. “I have pledged to give away produce from my garden every season to show gratitude to the ancestors and elders.” Oliver-King said stories like Levi’s are the reason Our Kitchen Table exists and she hopes to inspire more women and families passionate about home-grown food so they too can take charge of their own health and that of their families. “The work that Our Kitchen Table is doing in Grand Rapids is helping transform the relationship families have with their food, which will ripple through generations and lead to better health outcomes,” said Audrey Harvey, executive director and CEO, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation. “We’re proud to support efforts that are addressing food insecurity, food justice and providing families the education they need to increase their consumption of healthy foods.” Related:
Photo credit: Marilyn Nieves
MI Blues Perspectives is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association