The kitchen table was filled with color on family night at Trazana Staples’ house.
Staples’ daughter Erica chopped spinach as son-in-law Roy stirred a sizzling pot of red and green pepper with onion. Staples prepared a kale salad while her grandson Joseph, 8, zipped through the kitchen carrying the peel from a banana.
“Is this for compost?” he asked of a bag by the back door heading out to Staples’ 15 garden beds.
After turning from fast-food to a diet of fresh vegetables — and losing more than 140 pounds — Staples has become an advocate for healthier eating in her North Nashville neighborhood, one of the largest food deserts in the city. She founded an organization called Another Avenue Cultural Resource Center that she hopes will help engage her neighbors. So for this month’s installment of Nashville Cooks, Staples invited us to her home for family night to show us how she prepares a healthy, simple Mexican feast for six — with plenty of leftovers — for less than $50.
“I’m discovering food in a whole new light — it’s a mind, body and spirit journey.”
Just a few years ago, Staples weighed more than 300 pounds. And though she had tried to lose weight with Weight Watchers and diet pills, her health continued to decline. She’d had multiple surgeries in her 20s and 30s and had been diagnosed with high blood pressure and as pre-diabetic. Her doctor warned her that she needed to decide whether to live or die.
Then in 2007, Staples saw the movie Food Inc., and began making connections with those in the local food community. She also focused on growing her own food, a skill she had learned from her 103-year-old grandfather in Ohio. “I’ve been around the garden all my life,” she said.
And indeed, when she asked him the secret to his longevity, he had two tips: He grew everything he ate, she said, and he didn’t chase women.
These days, Staples says she grows her food or finds it at the farmers’ market. While her winter garden includes turnip greens, mustard greens, kale, garlic and fava beans, she’ll later have strawberries, blackberries, herbs, corn, peas, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, sweet potatoes and anything else she can fit on her half-acre of land near Tennessee State University.
But in addition to growing food as her grandfather does, Staples takes health a step further by preparing food, whether it be Mexican or soul food, in healthy ways. She’ll saute greens in olive oil, for example, rather than cook them for hours in animal fat.
On her weekly family night, Staples invites her children and grandchildren for a meal.
“We cook, eat, probably watch a movie, talk,” Erica said.
“And enjoy family,” her husband Roy added.
So as Erica heated tortillas in a pan, filling them with the sauteed vegetables, Staples added dressing to her kale salad.
She named the healthy properties of the green — such as antioxidants — as she worked. Then, as they filled plates for the children, they opened the quesadillas and added chopped spinach and mashed avocado. It’s these easy but effective lessons that make Staples’ message strong, and she hopes her kitchen and garden will become a resource center for those in her community, which has a high rate of unemployment and diet-related illnesses.
“Because I’ve been able to help myself,” she said, “I want to be able to share it with others.”
She hopes to empower her neighbors and encourage them to take responsibility for their health through Another Avenue’s programs, which could include a natural foods co-op.
“Once you start applying it to your life every day, it becomes easier. I feel good,” she said. “Anyone can do it, and I love food.”
Written by:Jennifer JustusThe Tennessean