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“When we educate a woman, we truly do educate a community,” says Tambra Raye Stevenson, founder and CEO of WANDA (Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture). The Anacostia-based nonprofit advocates for improved health and nutrition for women and girls of African descent.
Stevenson’s organization is putting those words to action this July with the WANDA Academy, a six-week online health and nutrition class for women living in Wards 7 and 8. At the end of the class, which is called “Cook for the Culture,” participants will have co-produced a community cookbook and personalized their own wellness plans. The D.C. Department of Health Care Finance funded the WANDA Academy with a $50,000 grant.
“We’re creating a digital space to ensure that not only are we being educated on our Black food history, but that we are also learning to advocate better for our Black communities through food, through health,” Stevenson says. “Made by us, women in our communities.”
Growing up in Oklahoma, Stevenson says her family never gave much thought to their health. It wasn’t until she got to Oklahoma State University, where she majored in nutrition, that Stevenson began thinking about the healing power of food.
“I learned about nutrition beyond just Betty Crocker, and I thought, this is fascinating, there’s a science of food and nutrition that can help people,” she says. “It was very clear to me for the first time that our food is our medicine.”
Throughout her career, Stevenson has centered her Black, Southern, and Nigerian culinary heritage in her nutritional work. With the WANDA Academy, Stevenson aims to teach women east of the Anacostia River how to “remix their recipes,” not how to make foods that are completely foreign to them.
“The whole decolonize movement around food is really a movement about reclaiming our heritage through food that was denied to us for so long, and being able to reclaim and restore our health through food,” Stevenson says. “And not only that, reclaim our culinary currency as women, as Black women, that has been so disconnected.”
Stevenson says she is specifically looking to empower time-strapped women who are low-income or on Medicaid. Up to 50 women will be able to enroll in the WANDA Academy at no cost. “We definitely want to impact women who would not be able to get access to quality health and nutritional information,” she says.
The WANDA Academy’s mission is especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. Black people are dying from the virus at disproportionately high rates in the District, reflecting a pattern that has taken place across the country as a result of systemic inequalities that burden Black Americans. Teaching Black women and their communities about nutrition is vital in the face of this pandemic, according to Stevenson.
“With the protests and everything, I hope our message doesn’t get lost in the midst,” she says. “We’re still trying to navigate and survive this virus, and health has become even more important as people look to boost their immunity.”