Inspiring Women With A Lot on Their Plates

Everything Lisa Adelakun knows about healthy cooking, she learned from a stranger on TV. The on-air inspiration taught her to halve her portion sizes, be choosy with cooking oil and—the hardest part—trade in fried chicken for baked chicken.  

Earlier this month, that motivating stranger became a new friend when Adelakun and the women of N Street Village learned to cook from Sunny Anderson, a rising Food Network star and host of the show “Cooking for Real.”  

Anderson, 35, visited Washington, D.C., two weeks ago to demonstrate healthy, budget-friendly recipes, give advice and meet with the more than 40 women in attendance. N Street Village serves more than 900 homeless and low income women per year, many of whom are transitioning to independent life.  

“If you worry about a struggle, it’s there so you can get to the next step,” Anderson told the group during a cooking demonstration. “You gotta go broke, you gotta lose friends, you gotta cut the haters—you have to do all of that to get to the next step. It’s hard because the next step is so good.”  

All of the advice rang true for Adelakun, who dropped more than 100 pounds—from 376 to 266—after gastric bypass surgery and a painfully strict diet, learning from Anderson’s show along the way. 

“My weight was a big problem for me,” she said. “I really didn’t like myself before.” 

She’s not alone. Obesity and related diseases are common in poor communities, due to low access to affordable nutritious foods and lack of education in healthy eating habits.  

“Obesity and diabetes are major health issues facing this nation,” said N Street Village President Mary Funke. “They are costly to our country, and affect communities and families everywhere, especially the women at risk we work with every day.”  

For women trying to get their lives on track, these health issues give rise to higher hurdles, including absences from work and pricey medical attention, Funke added.  

That’s a daily consideration for Laurie Williams, food services manager at N Street. Williams strives to offer food that is popular but healthy, and must develop a new menu each week, based on what food has been donated to the center. Williams and her staff serve between 70 and 120 women a day.  

Another of her considerations—healthy portion sizes—will be made easier by the 250 portion-controlled food trays donated by the Food Network. 

Anderson tailored her cooking demo to the group’s needs, opting for simple ingredients like green beans, potatoes and dark-meat chicken. The culinary magic is in the seasoning—garam masala, brown sugar, garlic and lemon juice, among others. Anderson encouraged the women to cook with whatever spices they preferred to make flavors pop. Budget shortcuts, she insisted, don’t have to result in unhealthy meals.  

As she cooked, Anderson told about growing up in a military family, joining the Air Force, working in radio and doggedly pursuing her own cooking show. Her mother had hypertension, and her grandfather died after struggling for years with diabetes.  

“Everything kind of hits home with me,” she said after the event. “Just the struggle of getting on your feet and finding out what you want to do with your life really spoke to me.”  

And she doesn’t take the chance to speak to the women lightly, “People are smart enough to know when somebody’s bullshitting them,” she said. “I think people know when you’re telling a story of growth and a story of struggle, when you’re telling the truth.”  

Anderson’s passion and sincerity were evident, said N Street Village resident Brenda Douglas. Plus, “it’s just so good to see a star,” she said. Douglas has been staying at N Street for three months and hopes her time there will lay out a new beginning.  

Standing behind a stove and looking out into the audience, Anderson says she’s always trying to read people’s expressions and figure out the best way to connect with them.  

“When I’m looking at people when I’m talking, I’m thinking ‘What can I say to make it click? What can I say to get something outside of the cooking? How do I get to them?’” she said.  

“It’s not about just treating everyone like a number. … It’s figuring out the lifestyle changes that you need to be productive for the next phase. There’s something about the human condition that has some people that want more.”  

For Adelakun, the chance to meet Anderson was encouraging, giving her even more resolve to maintain her weight and continue on a path to healthy living.  

“For me, it’s an ongoing process,” she said.  

But in the kitchen she shares on the fourth floor at N Street Village, Adelakun promises to put Anderson’s recipes to the test. Because she knows some baked chicken and a little spice can go a long way. 

Issues |Health, Physical

Region |Washington DC

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