"What is, again, our values? How do we have a line with that? Because otherwise, oppression is using food to be weaponized. And if we are literally harming us citizens through food, then one has to say, are we really at a war against ourselves? And how do we win a war that has been a civil war turn inward?" - Tambra Stevenson, MPH
Shireen: Featured as a 2020 change maker in the food system by Washington city paper, Tambra Ray Stevenson is a visionary founder CEO of Wanda, women advancing nutrition dietetics, and agriculture. appointed by Mayor Bowser to the DC Food Policy Council. Tamra serves as the council's first public health nutritionist and co chairs the food system and nutrition education Working Group, which is championing Nutrition Education for All. Welcome, Tambra.
Tambra: Hi, thank you for having me.
Shireen: And absolute pleasure having you on. So Tambra, I want to dive right in. And my first question to you is, what really led you to become a public health nutritionist?
Tambra: I think for me, early on as a kid growing up in Oklahoma, I saw my family impacted by a number of chronic diseases from diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and I thought being a doctor was the right path to do. But over time, having been a first generation college student and getting a chance to be exposed to public health, and train at Harvard public health and nutrition and realizing that there was a whole other world within health that I could be very exact in looking at food as medicine, combined with having a mindset of like Harriet Tubman, who some would affectionately called her, the Moses of the people. But combining that element around like food represents a path to freedom, and how can I lead, you know, my community, my people to freedom through the power of food. And so for me, being in the population health based space around nutrition, just made the exact sense from a career perspective in alignment with that vision and mission for my life.
Shireen: You know, you talked about sort of that element of food colonialism. What is that? Can you tell us a little bit about that? And how has it helped shape sort of these “right and wrong foods?”
Tambra: Yeah, again, food colonialism was something just like any diagnosis that we learned in healthcare that once I was able to find a name to a very community based issue, then it helped me to shape them. What is the prognosis for the community? And so for me, as I've come to learn food colonialism through my writings in, in my PhD program at American, it helped me to understand what, what is colonialism, period and how does that apply to the food system. And some of the best ways that I sum it up for many is the three E's, we have the eraser, the erasing of what I call on with the work of Wanda, elevating the Hidden Figures of the food system. Some people will get the food and not the women behind it in their corner currency, which flows into the exploitation of when you think about labor practices within the food system and not having fair wages across the supply chain, that tends to happen. And then the third is the extraction. Just like those who search for tropical disease remedies and the Amazon, extracting the essence of the plant. That is what we tend to do when it comes to the food system extracting the essence of what we want and and then toss away all the other parts including the labor aspect, when you think about the 299, far at will kind of mindset and not truly supporting both people planet and profit in this triple bottom line mindset that we see in social entrepreneurship. And then the other components with colonialism is the divide and conquer strategy that you'll find divided community, dividing a district as you'll see in DC, the numbers show a 20 year age gap between of life expectancy of my community of Anacostia and Ward eight compared to the other west of the Anacostia River, war two in three locations. And then you have the control, the controlling of just like anyone who is a game designer, you know that you control? What are the final outcomes in a super mario brother game? You think you have choices, but the choices were already predetermined. And so that is a control of the food supply and what options that you have and then you also have beyond the divide and conquer control. You just have an, just the capitalism that happens along with it, and so for me, when we think about the decolonize movement, it helps that background helps to contextualize. What do you mean to decolonize our food system, to decolonize our diet? And it's having what terms that we hear from sovereignty, where people, the community have some level of ownership versus a dependency perspective, when it comes to the food system, that they can grow their own food. That should be an option, having access to land that tends to be a challenge with land grabs that you see in the global south, also, known, very known historically here in the US. And then when you think about, again, equity in not only the pay of labor, but also and what foods should represent. So in my community, it, food is available through corner stores. We know from the subsidies of our food system, what does it mean for quality of nutrients and food? And so that gives way to an obesogenic environment and so how do you correct this idea that food should not kill you? Food should be healing you. And if there is a systemic oppression, using food as a weaponized tool to harm communities, how can you truly have a productive nation and workforce to uphold to this idea of a robust economy? And so all that is why food is such a powerful way of looking at the lens of our value system as a country. And at a critical time now, where we have a new administration coming in, really upholding to this idea that our policies should reflect the values we have in the people? And how can we come together to make that happen with a new agenda?
Shireen: When he talks about food oppression? Tambra, could you explain that a bit more and probably with an example. And then I'd love to get your take on how food oppression sort of can lead to chronic illnesses with a specific focus on diabetes, which is a space that, you know, we work in. So I'd love to get your take on that.
Tambra: Yeah, having had a grandma who died from complications of diabetes, we tend to use the term now, “metabolic health,” as a way to encapsulate, you know, diabesity that we see in our communities. But you know, that's the end of the line from a consumer patient perspective. But well, before that time came in, in the supply chain you had starting with just agriculture, the growing of food on land. You know, there's a lot of controversy, obviously, around genetically modified crops, on top of pesticides being used with the big historical case that was won against Monsanto. In the use of how do we care for our plants? How does those plants and pesticides combine impact, not only the bioavailability of nutrients in our bodies, but also, you know, creates, you know, like ticking time bomb and we, unfortunately, have had a time period where science has not always been valued. But science in its proper context, from a literacy perspective is really important, which is what we tend to call food literacy, which is really, more than just, you know, naming the vitamins and minerals in food. Really understanding what took from a production standpoint, this food to your table, and not only that going beyond the table, how does it impact your health? And so the oppression comes in many different forms in the lack of education around food and nutrition. The oppression comes from the availability of food in a community. If I were to go across the street to the local corner market, what foods are going to be available? The fact that I am in a community of 170,000 residents east of the river with two Safeways and a giant as full stores compared to the 22 new grocery stores that came on board, just in a span of less than a decade on the west side of the Anacostia River in a population. That's not even at a million in DC, much lower than that. One has the question. What, What is, again, our values? How do we have a line with that? Because otherwise, oppression is using food to be weaponized. And if we are literally harming us citizens through food, then one has to say, are we really at a war against ourselves? And how do we win a war that has been a civil war turn inward? And that, for me, has been through a multiple, kind of like social determinants of health approach from the policy that much changed the propaganda in terms of what media covers, which I currently study now, on top of the programs in communities? When we unleash nutritionists out, are they continuing the same rhetoric of a status quo? Or is that being challenged, because we all are part of of this wheel, that goes round and less that will, is corrected, it will not change, and the will will continue to run over the very communities it should be serving
Shireen: One of the one of the items you talked about with nutrition education, that is certainly something that we pride ourselves on is providing the type of education where there isn't much available information to that end. And so we pride ourselves on providing that, how does one I guess you know, then my question becomes so you, you can provide the education, but then you also touched upon the availability of foods and sort of that socio economic element? How does one begin to sort of address that in an equitable way?
Tambra: Well, people have called on reparations in general, I specifically would say it's culinary reparations when it comes to the food system and the historical nature of oppression of black indigenous people of color. And, you know, ways in which we correct that, with this new administration, for me is putting a black woman ahead of the US Department of Agriculture. Because we have an issue of race and gender as I study intersectionality. And a lot can be lost in the sauce, when we only take one perspective of the isms that looks at the situation that we have unfolded. When we think about those who were promised post emancipation and reconstruction 40 acres and a mule that never came about, on top of the systemic racism that came from past USC policies, that has created a land loss. It looks like those being able to have access to land access to affordable foods that represent the culture that has not always been available. And one of the things that are champion about, you know, are from just even a biological perspective that our genes just like research that has been done, post just the impact of the Nazi regime, when it came to the Holocaust, that we literally have trapped historical trauma in our bodies in our memory cells. And those same cells also captures, in my opinion, the idea of our ancestral foods and foods become a men a way in which just like a light switch, we turn on and off. And so if we have access to the foods of our ancestors, what I say strong food for strong people, our body will incorporate that in a more dynamic way to create stronger bodies when we think about the impact of his health disparities. And the diet related diseases if we have had a system where we're seeing more fruits and vegetables and grains, but it's foods that don't reflect the culture of the community. lack of education knowledge has been lost, intentionally severed. How do we change and reverse diabetes? How do we address these issues of, of lifestyle changes and we have, we have had a westernized lifestyle that we have been managing and part of that Western lifestyle has been just the undue harm of stress that gives way to inflammation in the body. We self medicate with food and alcohol. A study that just you know, done on just google searches over the election showed between Chinese food, fries and alcohol in pizza, those were the top ways in which people were self medicating through the stress of the election. And so I can only imagine, you know, what will be the health implications that were your bowels moving after that, where you drink your water to flush those toxins out of your body. I mean, these are real things like you will suffer the consequences of the choices that we make and the choices or what's available to us. And that is just the dynamic that we're in that we have to address. It's so many different levels, through policy through practice, and through the power of platforms, such as yours as well.
Shireen: When we're talking about, you know, eating and sort of self medicating, right? Is the, is, who is the onus upon is the onus upon ,the you know, the food retailer? Is it upon you know, who, who then makes a case for profitability, perhaps? Is it upon policymakers? Is on the individual? Where, where does the buck stop?
Tambra: So again, being in now looking at media, technology and democracy, I came across a study that involved actually one of my mentors, Dr. Cook was systemic, that review of stories over the last decade around health disparities. How those stories was framed, were analyzed and, and what the study revealed was that a lot of onus was put upon the individual, what individuals should do to help lose obesity, through weight loss, through nutrition. And that was it, there was no recognition that there was a system at play, policy at play. And so I push back on what we have intentionally done, because who benefits corporations benefit those who are in the healing industry and killing industry, from pharma, and into the food systems, they all benefit from this. And so in order to change that, we have to put onus onto policy that creates an enabling or disabling environment that provides the limit or plethora of choices for people to decide on top of the lack of health professionals, let alone of color that we don't have access to in communities. In nutrition. dietetics field is the number so far say 2.5% are of African descent, less than 10% people of color, when you think about the field, which has membership around 89,000 or so. And that's not enough troops on the ground to win this war against if we were in a food fight for health. And so we need stronger investment in loan repayment programs. For those going into nutrition. It's available for doctors, for PhDs for nurses, why not for nutritionists, if that takes leadership demanding for these sorts of changes. And it takes people who recognize that the Dietary Guidelines don't reflect what we see in need of diversity of foods. But it's, it's kind of like research, if it's an industry within itself. A lot of research has been based on just Caucasian Americans, or particularly white males, if we were to be even more specific. And so that's where the whole intentionality of race and gender must be a part of the dynamic. Yes, we are all humans, but we do have some differences. And I'm not talking about eugenic differences to be quite clear, that we have to acknowledge when it comes to our cultural needs.
Shireen: So what I'm hearing is it's sort of the onus falls on everyone, the policymakers.
Tambra: Most definitely. It takes a village to raise a child that's part of even just African philosophy, a boon to and so many other African cultures that recognize the communalism approach, that is polar opposite of rationalization that focuses on the individual. And I think, as the culture of America becomes reflected of this diversity, you know, like any cultural hybridity issue, we should take our culture with us. It should not be one where in order to exist, we have to fully you know, assimilate, but we uphold both this dual world that we live in, and I hope with the reflection of this administration, that it shows the importance that you can bring your full self to your job to your communities, to your homes, and also to the food system, and it should be gone. The days where you know, if it's white is not right, if it's brown, it should stick around. And that has been the opposite of the messaging you think about white rice, white milk, white potatoes. It's not to say like natural light producing things like onion and garlic, which I love. But we should be embracing foods of color, like we should be embracing people of color. And that's what we're not seeing on a consistent basis. But those diversity of foods literally represent different spectrums, just like we learn in physics of flavonoids. And just foods along the whole, Roy G. Biv, is what we call it. Of every color represents a different nutrient and quantity and quality. And we must value all of the rainbow of foods, not just one. So why would we value just one particular uphold supremacy of idea of color when it comes to people? But the opposite when it comes to food? So there should be consistency and messaging?
Shireen: You mentioned a few minutes ago about gender? And I want to touch on this question, because so you do health and nutrition classes for women in DC in Ward seven and eight. And you specifically mentioned that when you educate a woman, you educate a community, so I'd love to get your take on what does that mean, when it comes to nutrition?
Tambra: Yeah, um, again, gender. I didn't see or know the value of what it means to be a woman as a kid, I thought being the tomboy playing with the boys, that was the way to go in life to survive. But having been a mom, worked in women's policy, working on global nutrition issues around gender, seeing the data that transformed me, and it transforming and recognizing one, no matter where I am, no matter how many degrees that I have, my kids are going to be looking to me to eat. And I need to know how to cook. This is just a basic survival skills. If we were to think very logically about this, if you're thrown on an island, can you survive. And so for me, it took that approach to understanding that is critical women, just from the nature of the life represent the circle, we operate in sisterhood and communing. And food is another form of communication that we can mean, when we think about Sundays, historically, traditions of gathering together creating potluck meals. I remember those days, I missed those days of my aunts and my grandma, my mom, like all the women coming together, and this is not, you know, trying to go 1950s on women and roll back, you know, this idea of progress, but it's understanding some just basic common sense that we all should know how to survive in this world and thrive and food has been weaponized. And how do we use it as a tool of liberation, for ourselves and for our communities? In a way and that means it takes knowledge it takes understanding the history of our ancestors of the women in our family, how do we carry that rich knowledge forward? That if we're not going to leave a million bucks for our children? How do we live a million bucks in the form of wisdom and legacy in upholding culture, because we truly are the cultural keepers, from a culinary perspective in our family, and I don't think that's something that should be lightly tossed away. Yes, men can cook, I love a man who can cook as well. But I love that I could cook for myself too, if I need to. And so that's part of the, the forces of duality, that we all should have a role that we complement one another together. And we just tend to see and it just shows women tend to think more about fruits, vegetables, and grain and eat more of that compared to men who may be eating more meats. Yes, more of a plant based diet is moving forward to help people and planet, which I support. But I do also support this idea that women do play a critical role in our communities, we cannot give up this sacred notion of what food represents as this ritual form of communication in our families and how we lock in wisdom in that food in that recipe like an archeological or anthropological dig. That recipe is something that can be rediscovered and reclaimed by reclaiming your cultural food. And that's what we've taught these women in a new way. Because through westernization, when you think about food media as it presents food now, it's through this lens of colonization of looking at food from an extractive exploitative a ratio kind of lens. And so for us, it's about adding that context around food in a way that's receiving just like putting, you know, sugar in the medicine to make it go down. You know, that's what culture do, does with food, because it's an extension of our identity and it helps food create a community. And we are doing that through the wand Academy, creating a sisterhood of self care and service that supportive and understanding the power of food as a way in which we acknowledge a culinary Legacy of our women in our family and how do we uphold to restore our health reclaim our food weight and return back to our roots.
Shireen: We are toward the end of the episode unfortunately at this point so I'd love for our listeners to learn how they can connect with you and learn more about your work.
Tambra: Awesome. Thank you so much. I would say for those who are interested in work that we do at Wanda, we have our website I am Wanda dot ORG and also we're across all social media: LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at I am Wanda ORG or at underscore I am Wanda ORG on Instagram. So happy to connect to those who love to partner or bring our programs to your community. And so it's, it's important to recognize that food is more than just a fuel for our bodies, but it's a way in which we show a form of diplomacy and peace around the world. And a hungry belly can definitely cause a war so let's make sure we feed everyone and create more peace.
Shireen: I love it. Thank you so very much for your time. Tamra, this is an absolute pleasure.
Tambra: Thank you so much.