Tambra Raye Stevenson is the founder and CEO of WANDA: Women Advancing Nutrition, Dietetics, and Agriculture, an organization inspiring a new generation of women and girls to become ‘food sheroes’ in Africa and Diaspora. Stevenson will be speaking at the 4th Annual Washington D.C. Food Tank Summit, “Cultivating the Next Generation of Young Food Leaders,” which will be held in partnership with the George Washington University, the World Resources Institute, the National Farmers Union, the National FFA Organization, and the National Young Farmers Coalition on February 28, 2018.
As a mom and nutritionist, Stevenson inspires girls like her daughter Ruby to become healthy eaters, readers, and leaders with Where’s WANDA?, a bilingual book series introducing Little WANDA, a girl character, who travels across Africa finding the foods to heal her community with the help of female farmers. In 2016, Tambra was named a Champion for children’s wellbeing by ASHOKA and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Named as one of Top 50 Women in Tech to Watch for in 2018 by Innov8tiv, Stevenson has spoken on African food ways and the role of women and girls at the Women Who Tech Summit, Georgetown University’s Africa Business Conference, the U.N. Commission on the Status for Women’s NGO Forum, the U.S. Library of Congress, the African Union, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the World Bank.
Appointed by Mayor Bowser to the D.C. Food Policy Council, Tambra’s work has been highlighted by the Washington Post, Technical.ly, Voice of America, and the National Geographic Traveler Magazine. A Boren National Security Education scholar, Stevenson holds degrees in nutrition and public health from Tufts Medical School and Oklahoma State University.
Food Tank sat down with Stevenson to talk about her work in the nutrition world, agriculture, and the food system at large.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Tambra Stevenson (TS): There were multiple factors that escalated over time. As a child, I watched my family struggle with health challenges, which motivated me to go into the medical and nutrition field. In 2014, I had the opportunity to attend the African Union Summit as a youth delegate and pledged to help address youth issues in Africa. About a year later in 2015, I came up with WANDA. At the time, I was thinking about my own children who were starting preschool. No longer at home during the day, I had to depend on their teacher to promote healthy behaviors. When my daughter got a cavity, I went to the school and met with her teacher. She told me that I could pack my kids healthy snacks, but that she governs her classroom in her own way. I was dissatisfied and decided to do something about it. I needed a team, an army of women on the front lines as food freedom fighters to make healthier eaters and inspire our kids. So WANDA came to be, and Little WANDA was born with the idea that she would be a global food leader promoting heritage foods as medicine to heal her community. I turned this idea into a book, I had always wanted to write a book that reflected my own personal journey of reconnecting with my heritage in northern Nigeria. The book, written in English and Hausa, follows Little Wanda as she travels to Nigeria to find the cure for diabetes after her Nana was diagnosed. Along the way, she is helped by strong women farmers determined to make an impact on the food system.
FT: How are you helping to build a better food system?
TS: I am helping to build a better food system by training more women to understand the power of nutrition in transforming themselves and their communities. That means teaching skills in education, advocacy, and innovation. We don’t simply want them to have healthy cooking skills, we want to take it to the next level and give them the skills to be healthy food entrepreneurs and advocates for better food policy.
At the grasstops level, we convene women only panels to discuss the empowerment of women and girls, ensuring they have a place at the table where their voices will be heard. We curate highly visible panel discussions that allow people to reimagine women and girls as food sheroes healing their communities. Part of our campaign is focused on highlighting WANDA women and girls in Africa by writing stories, using media, and building a platform to amplify their voices. WANDA is unique because we realize that healing is an important component to building strong female food system leaders.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
TS: Image makeover. I believe that if a young girl can’t visually see a food sheroe to look up to, how can she aspire to be something greater? President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama were powerful for children everywhere. Michelle Obama working the garden at the White House was an important demonstration of what we can do when we get connected to Mama Earth.
FT: What innovations in food and agriculture are you most excited about?
TS: I’m most excited to use the power of the arts and entertainment to spark a movement. At U.N. events I keep hearing that we need to make agriculture cool for young people, but who says what cool looks like? Who owns that phrase? The new WANDA song has an Afro-beat element and talks about Afro-eats, an example of the creativity that needs to happen. As a former child nutrition educator, I’m used to writing curriculum and writing songs, so I decided to collaborate with female African artists to make a CD of songs about different foods across Africa. I believe that new elements of creativity can create a sensory feeling like that associated with food, to help inspire innovative changes.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
TS: First, support I Am WANDA! Then, get involved in your community. Last year, we kicked off a Sisterhood Supper Series to help build relationships at the local level by bringing women together to celebrate their culture and cuisine through conversation. We want to bring people together around a meal with meaning and purpose behind it and discuss solutions to food system problems.
FT: What is the best opportunity for young or aspiring farmers and entrepreneurs to get a foothold in America’s agricultural future?
TS: First start by being present. Second, get a good mentor and make sure the exchange is reciprocal, meaning that you both have something to offer to each other. It shouldn’t just be about them teaching you, you should teach them too. What you give to others you get back in return.
FT: How can we best stimulate young people’s curiosity about food and agriculture and encourage their participation in building healthier food systems?
TS: Our work strives to give readers the feeling that they are going on an adventure, and this resonates well with kids. Learning from the work of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, we strive to turn pain into purpose. Frequently, people are motivated to go into a certain profession because they’re trying to solve a problem for their family or community, being able to understand their personal pain is crucial in finding a purpose-driven path. Stimulating one’s own inner hero is crucial, one must learn how to turn their test into a testimony and find out how strong their conviction is to achieve their purpose.
The D.C. Food Tank Summit is SOLD OUT but tickets remain for our Seattle Summit!. Register HERE for the Seattle Food Tank Summit, Growing Food Policy on March 17. This event will sell out – register today!