If someone gave you a jar of sorghum, would you know what it is by sight? Would you know how to prepare it? Do you know where jollof rice comes from and how to prepare it? One Ward 8 resident does, and she is on a mission to make sure you know it too. As her first African Heritage Cooking class gets underway for the season on Valentine’s Day, Tambra Raye Stevenson is prepared not only to tell her students what sorghum is but its origins and how to prepare it for a meal. A nutrition educator and food justice advocate, Stevenson has found a way to tap into her African heritage to teach about the healing power of food.
Lose to Win
Born and raised in Oklahoma, Stevenson always had a love for food and played restaurant with her sister. “I had a menu which included Mom’s leftovers. I even had a special of the day,” she explains with a chuckle. But when family members began passing on from preventable diseases, her curiosity was piqued. In college she sought understanding about the relationship between food and the body. “I started doing nutrition research and thought about how great it would be to provide training for people of color on this topic. Food is a visual example of how to heal,” she declares. “It’s a great tool to connect people on many levels. It engages all of your senses. It is a great way to empower people to heal and restore their health.”
A classmate suggested that she look into studying nutrition. Stevenson received her bachelor of science degree from Oklahoma State University and then pursued a master’s degree in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine. She had obstacles along the way. Motherhood and a busy lifestyle took their toll, and she gained weight. Her father, who taught her many things about food, passed away in 2007.
Through it all Stevenson fought back. She began a culinary ministry at her church, Saint Teresa Avila Parish on V Street, in Southeast. She has also lost 110 pounds and has found balance with her career and raising two children. “I am a walking testament,” she declares proudly.
Stevenson started New American Traditions Including Values that are Sustainable and/Or Local (NativSol) to bridge the gap between having nutritious African heritage ingredients and healing the body. Her goal was to make NativSol Kitchen “the premiere cooking school on a mission to empower African Americans to reclaim their health by restoring their African traditional foods and heritage into their daily life. NativSol has the passion and talent to equip the community to cook, shop and eat their way back to health with live and virtual classes.” NativSol offers two programs, “African Heritage Cooking” and “Food for the Soul,” an eight-week faith-based nutrition program.
Charlene Howard, a returning student to the program, says NativSol provided her and her family with good training. “It has changed my eating and my family. We change how we shop and how we store things. We know what to buy and where to get it. We still eat meat but when I cook it, I learn how to add something new.”
Cooking demos are critical to the transformation of health. Dr. Autumn Saxton-Ross, former wellness coordinator and community health administrator for the DC Department of Health, says programs such as NativSol have a great impact on the community. “A lot of the work the city has been concentrating on around nutrition, health, and obesity has been happening at an environmental and policy level – working to increase access, e.g. the FEED DC Act, the Healthy Corners Program, and the Healthy Schools Act.” She continues: “But, you cannot just improve access alone. You have to also improve utilization. That is why classes like this are important. They teach people how to use the produce they have increased access to.” She also praises the classes for being community-based “in every way. It is held at a church which is historically the foundation for change in the Black community and using the culture of the community as a way to engage them.”
Stevenson wants to get the community more involved with demanding better quality products in their stores. “We advocate redefining what our journey is going to be,” she states. “We can reclaim a new dream.”
For more information about NativSol, email Tambra at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Candace Y.A. Montague is a freelance health writer in Washington, DC.