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Tambra Raye Stevenson is passionate about food and even more passionate about making sure everyone has it as a fundamental human right.
The founder of WANDA: Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture, based in Washington, DC, works tirelessly to combat food insecurity and support Black women doing the same, as well as looking to or already creating a positive impact in agriculture and nutrition.
Stevenson is preparing to host her signature event, the Sisterhood Supper, on Saturday, June 17, along with a host of complementary events that will celebrate Juneteenth, the bond of Black women and the importance of ensuring everyone has access to food for nourishment.
She shares more about the vision below.
Juneteenth means so many things to the Black community. Please share what it means to you.
Growing up in Oklahoma, Juneteenth represented the Fourth of July for Black people. That means for Black Independence Day, we had fireworks at the park, family gatherings, and plenty of food marking the start of summer. It’s also a time to remember our ancestors who fought for Black people’s liberation in this country. So while we are physically free, now is a time to continue to reclaim freedom mentally, spiritually, financially and nutritionally.
At the heart of freedom is the power of choice. Unfortunately, we have limited choices regarding food and nutrition, from the ability to grow, cook, learn, and heal with it. So in the fight for food justice, Juneteenth is a time to restore food freedom as the next wave of liberation for me and the work of WANDA: Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture, which involves having fierce female food freedom fighters on the frontline. Imagine the women warriors of Wakanda but WANDA.
Please share the story of your ancestor Henrietta.
Juneteenth is about honoring Henrietta, my paternal ancestor who was still very much “enslaved help” to the G.W. Speed family in Narravo County, Texas, as of 1903. Before Texas, she was gifted to the wife before marriage by her grandmother.
GW Speed, a Confederate soldier, didn’t want to bring Henrietta on the journey to Texas but wanted to leave her in Mississippi. However, his wife refused to leave her. He became a local bank president, a landowner with over 1000 acres, a Baptist, and had over 11 children. My family speculates Giles [one of Henrietta’s sons] was one of them.
Henrietta raised her sons Dan, Madison and Giles and the Speed children, who played along with hers. She lost a son who drowned in Mississippi. She reunited with her son Giles Burkhalter, an agripreneur who settled in Eufaula, Oklahoma, with his wife and she died there on June 15, 1908.
Her legacy continues through me and our family in Oklahoma and beyond. So Juneteenth is very personal when I think about how Henrietta in 1863 and 1865 was not freed from the bondage of slavery but living with dreams deferred.
Please share the vision behind the Sisterhood Supper.
For me, Juneteenth is about living Henrietta’s wildest dreams attending the first-ever Juneteenth concert at the White House and celebrating our Black food culture at the Smithsonian Museum’s Taste of Juneteenth. But most of all, it’s about centering Black women who have been our meal healers, cultural keepers, and culinary creators like Henrietta at our Sisterhood Supper: Juneteenth Celebration. There, we honor local Black women as food sheroes, from restaurant tours to farmers to ecosystem builders, chefs and beyond.
The vision of the Sisterhood Supper is the reclaim a culture of health, community and food. When you think of the infamous Sunday Brunch at the local restaurants, where are the gatherings in our homes and communities? Imagine the scene in “Soul Food” minus the backfat and fried foods, but reclaiming our African heritage foods that heal us and create deep, meaningful conversations and connections.
That’s Sisterhood Supper I began in 2017 in homes and restaurants in New York, Oklahoma, Texas and California with a small gathering of women making meals and sharing stories.
When the pandemic came, I thought about how we needed sisterhood as a key item on the menu, along with healing meals. So a magical cadre of women in the community came together using their superpowers to bring forth the Sisterhood Supper on a local urban farm in 2021 when the U.S. adopted Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
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In 2021, D.C. Mayor Bowser proclaimed the start of Juneteenth as WANDA Week, a week that celebrates the contribution of Black women in the fields of food, agriculture, and nutrition. During that week, we are raising support for our Food Shero Freedom Fund, which established a WANDA Endowed Scholarship and mentorship to support Black women pursuing degrees in agriculture, food studies, culinary arts, dietetics, and nutrition.
With the help of donors like Whole 30, we established the first scholarship and mentorship program at my alma mater, Oklahoma State University. We are building a pipeline for Black women to be financially free as they pursue purpose-driven paths that empower our communities to achieve food freedom.
What is one thing everyone can do to help in the fight for food justice?
As a nation, we believe in the right to bear arms in the U.S. Constitution but not the right to food which is a necessity to sustain life, liberty and happiness. With the rising food costs and premature death rates, we must transform this moment into a movement to advance the right to food in the U.S. that aligns with the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.
From guerilla gardening to digital food activism, we have been resilient in feeding ourselves, growing our own food, and using food to create a livelihood while decolonizing foodways by reclaiming our roots and restoring our health.
I am pushing to establish a Food Bill of Rights that expresses food freedom through the power of policy, which enables our environment for others to participate in a food democracy.
You recently attended the White House for its first Juneteenth celebration. Please share that experience.
I was invited by the White House to attend its first-ever Juneteenth Celebration on the South Lawn with a star-studded lineup. The experience was more than I could imagine and I brought team WANDA to see such excellence in one space on a gloriously clear sky day as if God was smiling down.
Once through three security checkpoints, I arrive on the South Lawn, greeted by White House staff and soldiers. I perused the refreshment stations of ice cream, popcorn, and beverages. Clearly not on my Juneteenth menu; however, I still indulged myself with a frozen treat and lemonade. Next time I want to see Black owned-food and beverage products like Yolele Fonio chips and Bissap to start.
Glaring horns permeated the sky with the Washington Monument in the backdrop; the battle of the HBCU bands Morgan State and Tennessee State was on. With their drum major and the dancers dancing to the beats, it was a sight to see, setting a nostalgic mood.
Also, it transported me to my marching band days while seeing many familiar faces and celebrating ones such as actress Tisha Campbell, media mogul Roland Martin, activist DeRay Mckesson, Melanie Campbell of Black Women’s Roundtable, and NAACP President Derrick Johnson.
Hearing the inspiring words from 96-year-old Opal Lee, Grandmother of Juneteenth, who graced the stage with Vice President Kamala Harris, was icing on the cake. The night continued with Black music excellence from Jennifer Hudson to Audra McDonald, along with Step Afrika and musical choirs from Tennessee State and Fisk.
Accompanied by his daughter, President Biden shares remarks about the continued to fight for justice and policies that include creating more seats at the table for African Americans to help and participate in decision-making moments.
What is next for you and WANDA in terms of the work you are doing?
1. Celebrate WANDA Week with the first-ever Juneteenth Walk this Sunday, promoting and supporting Black women’s food businesses from farm to health to build our local food economy. We are having a talk at NIH Clinical Center on Juneteenth centering on food freedom, hosting a WANDA Wednesday Happy Hour at the Player’s Lounge managed by Georgene Thompson, Food Shero honoree, hosting an Instagram Live on Thursday, and the Food Freedom Eat-In at Flavoture owned by Chef Pinkey, then WANDA Garden Day on Saturday managed by Chef Marley Holland.
2. Build the Food Shero Freedom Fund to establish more WANDA Endowed Scholarships at universities, including HBCUs which every year in perpetuity will provide scholarships and mentorship to Black women pursuing academic degrees in agriculture, nutrition and dietetics. We want to continue to plant that seed with the help of our supporters, partners, and donors to do that and more institutions to release the student loan debt that creates shackles but provides financial freedom.
3. Continue to advocate for a Food Bill of Rights. We understand that legislation had to be implemented for emancipation to occur. The same legislative process must be put in place for us to have not only a right to move freely in this country but a right to food in this country because, as we know, if there are no laws on the books, what we believe to be free is not so and so we need to put laws on the book to say that we believe in freedom in this country for all where no child, man or woman grows hungry but is nourished. That’s what it means to achieve nutrition security, which is national security for all.
4. And lastly, we uplift our African heritage foods as are our medicine. We launched the Black Food Census, encouraging more people to complete and share their experiences on how we need to put Black food in the context of the Food is Medicine movement. And we need everyone’s help to do that.
For more about Stevenson’s work through WANDA as well as upcoming events and tickets. You can also follow along and get involved in the mission through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can also follow Stevenson personally on Instagram.