Every couple of months, Annie Neals attends a diabetes cooking class at her neighborhood health clinic, where doctors and nurses and nutritionist and culinary instructor promise to help her manage the disease with the power of food.
She brings her family’s history to the table: Neals’ grandmother had diabetes. So did her two older brothers. Because he did not lose weight or adjust his diet, one brother lost both legs to the disease — one amputated above the knee, the other below. So Neals intently takes in the quarterly cooking demonstration at the Jefferson Reaves Sr. Health Center, with the knowledge of the generational toll taken on her family.
She makes mental note of the healthier spices and herbs that can be used to substitute for the rich goodness of her traditionally African-American diet. “I come to these classes because I learned how food contributes to my diabetes,’’ said Neals, 47, of Overtown, who was diagnosed in 2010 and began attending the classes that year. “I am changing my habits, learning how to cook and re-cook using the most real and natural foods I can get.’’
As the health world grapples with ways to control the nation’s seventh leading cause of death — and the trigger behind of a slew of other related chronic issues — the kitchen has moved to the frontlines of diabetes and pre-diabetes management. The idea of re-learning how to cook traditional foods and discovering new foods is a growing approach to attack what experts call a public health crisis, particularly within ethnic communities. In that way, the cooking classes are at the intersection of modern healthcare and cultural identity, especially important in South Florida where ethnicity is often defined by food.
“Diabetes as a whole is a significant health problem. We have 26 million people with diabetes and another 79 million who are pre-diabetic, and together that is about a third of the nation’s population,’’ said Ann Albright, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Diabetes Translation. “In high-risk ethnic groups [which include African Americans and Hispanics], the proportion is higher. Those groups are hit particularly hard. There is no question they are shouldering a bigger burden of the disease.”
In Miami-Dade County, 9.3 percent of the adult population has diabetes, according to 2010 Florida Department of Health data. But at the Jackson Health System-run clinic on Northwest Fifth Avenue, which serves Overtown, Allapattah and Little Haiti, about 24 percent, or approximately 1,500 residents are living with diabetes.
The morning cooking demonstrations, led by “kitchen counselor” Lori Hollander, are designed to introduce healthy alternatives, broaden cooking methods and temper culturally familiar food recipes that are typically high in fat and salt. The classes began about two years ago and attendance ranges from eight to 20 people.
“The purpose is to acquaint the people with a different way of preparing foods using ingredients they have access to,” said John G. Ryan, who co-directs the United Health Foundation Center of Excellence at Jefferson Reaves, where the diabetes care program is based. “We want to introduce them to the nuances and to new foods.”