A Visit from Auntie Oye’

Vera Oye’ Yaa-Anna (in blue) helps students and parents create pizzas from fresh ingredients. Photo: Charnice A. Milton

On the morning of March 13, Ms. Hampton's class received a special visitor, Vera Oye’ Yaa-Anna, or “Auntie Oye’,” as she prefers to be called. Yaa-Anna has been leading her culinary storytelling workshops at Leckie Elementary School for the past months, in which she teaches healthy and easy-to-make recipes to families. Today, 11 parents and relatives joined their children as they made pizzas and fruit salad. “In all my years of doing this,” she said with a laugh, “I have never seen more than four parents!” While getting parents to participate is a challenge, Yaa-Anna believes that the message of good nutrition is needed, especially in Ward 8.

About the Workshops

Originally from Liberia in West Africa, Yaa-Anna, a nutrition educator and storyteller, is the founder and director of the Palaver Hut, a nonprofit focusing on traditional African storytelling. In the past Yaa-Anna took her family culinary storytelling workshop to Maury and Tyler Elementary schools, both located in Capitol Hill, and expanded it through the Family Cooking Summer Camp Workshop. In a 2014 interview with the Hill Rag, Yaa-Anna described her workshops as “hands-on” experiences. “I share the many ways one food can be used,” she said. “Once they see how it can be used they have a better appreciation and understanding for that food. They take a culinary journey to other countries, which truly intrigues them.”

Yaa-Anna's goal for the workshops is to encourage families to make and eat healthy food together. “Studies have shown that children in families who eat together decrease their chances of getting into trouble,” she explained. “I want to see parents make time to make food with their children and talk together.”

Coming to Ward 8

While Yaa-Anna did not originally plan to come to Ward 8, Leckie teachers who saw her program asked her to bring her program to the school. As a result she applied for a mini-grant through the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative (FSFSC). The organization awards $1,500 to $3,000 grants twice every fiscal year. “Part of this work is really connecting the family and giving opportunities for young people and their parents and guardians to engage further in their own development,” said Dionne Reed, FSFSC’s community engagement director. “What I like most about it is the opportunity to use cooking as a tool to connect the families together by way of explaining the importance of healthy living and healthy eating habits.”

One reason why Yaa-Anna wanted to bring her program to Ward 8 was because of its reputation as a food desert, meaning that there is little to no access to affordable healthy food. “It's a complex issue,” she said. “Parents aren't cooking or eating with their families. Instead, they're eating fast food.” While healthy food can be expensive, it is still possible to live a healthy lifestyle. “Take charge of your health,” she encouraged, “don't depend on people outside of the community.” 

How It Works

Usually visiting Leckie in the morning or after school, Yaa-Anna dresses participants in their “uniforms” (chef jackets and hats) while encouraging them to wash their hands. Every session focuses on creating dishes she knows children love, like pizza and macaroni and cheese, while introducing them to fresh, non-processed ingredients like vegetables. “All of my workshops are hands-on,” Yaa-Anna said. “The children can see how things are made.” Also, participants are encouraged to talk about the process while they complete each recipe. In some cases the students write stories about their food. Afterwards Yaa-Anna distributes surveys and recipes to the adults. “I'm hoping that the teachers will incorporate more culinary arts in their curriculum,” she explained. 

While some parents could not make the afternoon sessions, many came during the day. “My daughter actually asked me to come,” said Lydale Nelson, father to Lynnea. “It made it special, so I made sure that I came today.” Tiera Wilkins, mother to Treazure, agreed, saying, “You should participate and want to volunteer with your kids. They remember stuff like this. You don't want your children to feel left out.” 

Changing Perspectives

One of the issues Yaa-Anna faced was changing people's perspectives on health programming. “People always think that there are poor people in Ward 8,” she said. “I have never met a poor person in Ward 8; just people who don't prioritize.” She further argues that Ward 8 communities have the resources to create programming like the culinary storytelling workshops; however, people must make them priorities. “Some parents suggested bringing a celebrity,” Yaa-Anna said. “I don't have that kind of money! It's better for that money to go toward the programs.” 

Now that Yaa-Anna has finished the last of her six commissioned workshops, she hopes to continue serving Ward 8. She already has FSFSC's support. “She and I had a conversation when she first came to the pre-application conference,” said Reeder. “She said that she loved and knew the benefits of healthy eating and healthy living, and she's done that for so many other cultures. Now it's pressing on her to do it inside the African-American culture.” However, Yaa-Anna wants support from the parents. “If you want things like this to happen more, you have to write; you have to tell your principal,” she said to a group of parents. “If you want this, just ask.”

The Palaver Hut is located at 317 E St. SE, Washington, DC 20003. For more information visit oyepalaverhut.org or contact Vera Oye’ Yaa-Anna at 202-547-4899 or oyepalaver11@verizon.net. 

Vera Oye’ Yaa-Anna (in gray sweater), also known as “Auntie Oye’,” poses with a class at Leckie Elementary School. Thanks to a mini-grant from the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, Yaa-Anna brought her Capitol Hill-based culinary storytelling workshops to Ward 8. Photo: Vera Oye’ Yaa-Anna

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