Tambra Raye Stevenson is the founder and CEO of Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture (WANDA), an organization dedicated to the development of the next generation of women and girls as leaders in the farm to fork movement in Africa and the Diaspora. She is the author of the recently released children’s book series, Where’s WANDA?, the first in a literary series that seeks to empower a new generation of women and girls to bring healing, health, and economic opportunity to their communities through food and nutrition.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Tambra about the barriers African-American women face to participate in the U.S. food system, and the need for culturally relevant food heroes to inspire the next generation of female food leaders.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to found Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture (WANDA)?
Tambra Raye Stevenson (TRS): When First Lady Michelle Obama championed healthy meals for our nation’s children, I was inspired as a mom and a nutritionist: perhaps we were going to finally move the needle in our communities and change the food culture of “fried, died and laid to side” that I am all too familiar with. Her “Let’s Move” initiative sparked a resurgence in the farm to table movement. Though strides have been made, roadblocks occurred along the way, which begged the question: who was going to carry the torch once she left the White House?
As a parent, I did my part of providing nutrition education, but it was an uphill battle once [my daughter] got to school where junk food was given as a reward. I realized that she had no characters that looked like her to inspire her to join the band of food fighters on the frontline.
A peer mentor, Semhar Araia, founder of Diaspora African Women’s Network, once said, “You must create the space that you want to see.” That notion was confirmed after attending the African Union Summit in Ethiopia where I spoke as a young delegate on addressing food security and agriculture for youth employment opportunities. There I recognized the importance of women coming together from both sides of the Atlantic for the shared goal of healing our communities through food and nutrition. What an audacious goal to achieve like the eclipse of Mama Africa and Mother Earth. And let her be called WANDA.
FT: What do you think are some of the greatest barriers for African-American women to participating in the U.S. food system?
TRS: As the only African American student at the time in my academic nutrition program in Oklahoma, [I realized] we must address the lack of role models, early career exploration, mentorship, and advocacy for our girls to become food leaders. Policies and programs have focused on grocery stores and farmers markets as the food justice solution; yet little has focused on the people-centered policies with human capital investment beyond food service employment training. That means [there needs to be] financial resources to provide enrichment programs, loan repayment programs for working in nutritionally under-resourced communities, and investing in access and nutritional education of ethnic crops like African vegetables and grains. We need to address the lack of underrepresented minorities in nutrition and dietetics similar to pre-medical enrichment programs. Ultimately, we must lift the veil off the hidden figures in our food system and present them as today’s role models to inspire a new generation of food heroes.
Also, though I grew up in an agricultural state, and [was] required to study ag, I realized the historical impact of slavery kept me at an arm’s distance to agriculture. So I chose to focus on the science of food which didn’t appear to be a complicated relationship for me. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports, however, [that] less than three percent of its ranks are of African descent, with the number dropping compared to other ethnic groups. So I realized my energy was going to focus on creating a movement of women and girls who took back their power in our heritage, our womanhood, and our kitchen, for ourselves and our communities.
FT: How does WANDA address some of these barriers for women and girls?
TRS: Through the prism of food, we are silo smashing to find the intersectionality to transform how we, as women and girls, find the value of and lend our voices. To that effort, the #IamWANDA hashtag campaign was born to share awareness of the hidden figures in the food system, bringing forth the change that we so desperately need in health care, schools, communities, and homes. And not to leave the men out, the #ILoveWANDA hashtag engages and recognizes the role of men in opening doors of opportunities for women and girls.
Through our partnership with NativSol Kitchen and Genii Games, we created a blog series promoting the health and beauty of African foods. We introduced the Little WANDA character to inspire and inform young people that their heritage foods are cool and fun to learn, countering the booming fast food landscape in Africa and the Diaspora.
When WANDA launched in Nigeria in 2016, we traveled to northern and central Nigeria providing WANDA workshops to hospitals, schools, and universities. We teamed up with a local women’s group to provide balanced, nutritious meals to families in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Abuja, Nigeria who fled from the north due to Boko Haram. Also, we piloted an Africa Farm to Fork Entrepreneurship Bootcamp providing skills-based training and coaching for women-led food businesses for African diaspora communities.
FT: Your new book series ‘Where’s WANDA’ aims to inspire young girls to become food heroes—why do think it’s important to reach out to youth, and in particular young girls?
TRS: At WANDA, we have a motto: “When we empower women and girls, we nourish the world.” By investing in our girls, they will become women with the capacity to uplift their families and transform their lives. As future food entrepreneurs, nutrition researchers, food scientists, dieticians, and farmers, the new generation will build local food economies and promote good nutrition and improved agriculture. As mothers, they will provide the first foods for their babies. Lastly, as community educators, they will share and preserve their cultural foodways.
Based on my journey as National Geographic Traveler of the Year in search of my roots through food, “Where’s WANDA?” inspires girls to become explorers within themselves, healers of their meals, and citizens of the world. Made in Africa, the character Little WANDA is the “Doc McStuffins” of nutrition meets “Dora the Explorer” of Africa and the Diaspora. She encourages girls to become food heroes and global citizens by learning their foodways and how to heal their community.
I created the “Where’s WANDA?” character Little WANDA to serve as a role model for girls to aspire to become champions for their community like former First Lady Michelle Obama, Nigeria’s Hajiya Salamatu Garba or Kenya’s late Wangari Mathaai. They will continue to carry the torch for supporting healthier communities through food and nutrition.
FT: How is WANDA building a link between women and girls in both the U.S. and Africa, and why do you think this link is important in building a stronger food movement?
TRS: By launching in the United States and Africa, WANDA crosscuts sectors, generations, and geographies to ensure a new crop of women and girls lead from farm to fork. Communication technology and social media platforms are at the heart in sustaining a pan-African women’s leadership network from Africa to the Diaspora.
Given the historical journey of food, labor, and trade in U.S.-Africa relations, we recognize that women and girls hold the key to bringing the healing and reconciliation through food and heritage that we need for a firm foundation to move forward in the future.
I believe the core of WANDA is redefining the culture of food and our identity that embraces healing from our ancestral trauma, honoring our divine femininity and leading the change we need to see in communities and ourselves. Through our shared struggle we find commonality in our potential that ascends beyond their current plight. At WANDA, we are working to create a world for women and girls to go to new heights, build a sisterhood of the soil and soul, and dare to value their voices.
FT: What are the main programs WANDA is hoping to expand or focus on this year?
TRS: The DNA strands of WANDA include education, advocacy, and innovation. In the area of education, we are focused on promoting the “Where’s WANDA?” book series and expanding it into a girl-empowerment nutrition program that they can identify with and have ownership of. And to receive positive mentorship about their heritage, healing wisdom, history and identity through food.
In addition to that, we want to build a supportive network of women advocates and innovators and continue to bring awareness to the hidden figures in our food system. That means providing them with online learning communities to build skills and share resources. We will continue the entrepreneurship bootcamp as well because we need healthy food entrepreneurs to balance the nutritionally poor fast food options in our communities.
By 2030, the goal of the WANDA movement is to ensure a million women and girls have access to education, advocacy, and innovative skills to improve healthy lifestyles in their families, communities, and societies through improved agriculture and good nutrition. Together, we create a generation of female food leaders in Africa and Diaspora to counter the rise of non-communicable diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
To learn more, visit iamwanda.org and follow @iamwandaorg on Facebook and Twitter and @_iamwandaorg on Instagram.