coming full circle (a blog tour)

stones, dirt, labor and love–the making of a labyrinth

When my friend Kat came meowing at my door last week and asked if I wanted to be part of a blog tour for writers on writing, I responded affirmatively. Mainly, I think I was trying to impress her–or at least not disappoint. Other possible invites from Kat might result in me kayaking down frightening rapids or stumbling behind in one of those extreme obstacle course races like Tough Mudder. No way would I have the courage for what those odysseys entail. I am not sure I am endowed with that many lives. But for this request, I so wished to appear brave and was actually quite humbled to find that she might consider me a fellow wordsmith. For you see, when Kat is not physically competing with the big boys, she is doing some serious kick ass and beautiful writing.

http://katadventures.wordpress.com/2014/07/14/my-writing-process-blog-tour/

What this blog tour entails is that bloggers write about their process on writing, and then pass the baton on to two other bloggers. I see it as kind of one of those old school chain letters which I was always a sucker for, though in truth they never brought me much beyond some postcards from remote strangers and some dish towels. But, hey, what’s wrong with that? Who doesn’t love receiving some nice mail and who doesn’t need extra dish towels?

So, here I am on the blog tour, though feeling I could still use a life jacket and some oars. Because, really, on a good day, rather than being a writer who writes about nutrition, I am a nutritionist who manages to do some writing. But, here I am. So, if you would do me a favor and not tell Kat that I am faking it, I will proceed and answer the requisite questions.

1. What are you working on?

Well, I am working on coming full circle in some way by reaching 100 posts on this blog–a long-held intention. I am hovering in the high nineties, but I have to be honest with myself and push a little harder because I did re-post some older pieces a few times. My blogging has been hindered significantly this year due to two things. The first was finishing a master’s degree–which I did!  And, the second is that these days I am writing a seemingly simple curriculum for preschoolers (and their parents) that has managed to rub all the words right out of me. I am hoping that upon the upcoming completion of that, my musings here will again flow more freely. I would also like to attract some guest writers who may also help me reach my goal (hint). With that, I am trying to figure out what new directions to take with my blog. Make it a little more sexy or just cease and desist.

2. How does my writing differ from others’ work in the same genre?

After having worked in what I call the “trenches” of nutrition for many years, I climbed out one day in the early to mid-oughts to find that the entire field had actually exploded–figuratively. Nutrition had become a huge topic that everyone was talking about. The food pyramid was beginning to crumble and there was much rebuilding to be done. Suddenly, there seemed to be new foods and ways of preparing them, uncovered connections between health and nutrition, and a myriad of environmental impacts related to food choices. These topics were on everyone’s mind and being addressed and expressed in powerful and creative ways. Oh yeah, and the “obesity crisis” was looming large. In this new order, there was action and reaction–lots being said and more being felt. What may, if anything, make my writing unique is its attempt to reflect the experience of the individual against the backdrop of this overwhelming modern cultural milieu of food and eating.

3. Why do you write what you do?

One day, while munching on some kale chips, it dawned on me that I had been privileged to be privy to thousands of people’s stories of being eaters.  The “Jane the Eaters” so to speak. Rather unplanned, a career had unfolded that found me sitting in small, private rooms in various settings listening to tales of confusion, pain, self-berating, and guilt about the love of food, all in response to the care and feeding of the human body. And, I was hearing the stories that were spilling out onto the street as well. This week, while  getting my hair cut, I discerned through the whir of the blow dryer that  the client in the next chair was telling her stylist that her daughter was struggling with an eating disorder. The stylist responded matter-of-factly that when she goes out to eat, she pours water on her food to stop herself from overeating. The next day, I passed a huge semi-truck. It had a picture of thick slabs of meat plastered on its side. The truck asked, “Have I had my Tyson’s today?” Well, I don’t know if that answers the question, but  bearing witness to such juxtaposed experiences, somehow compels me to write what I write about– with some hope that it can help people to be a little kinder and gentler with themselves.

4. How does my process work?

Not well, I suppose.  I wish I had a process. Instead, the stories just stay trapped in my head and keep banging, until I find a precious moment to sit and let them free.

I am glad to let you know that the next stop on the tour is the blog, Inching2Wisdom written by J. Eva Nagel.  Eva tells stories and shares her perspective of a rich life led both close to home and through world-wide travels. The truth is, she is already quite wise.

And, while I determine the other blog stop, I just invite you to visit the writings of Hillary Savoie at The Cute Syndrome.

In health,

Elyn (that’s me sitting in the labyrinth circle)

my plate

my plate

My Plate Haiku

Hearts are not just

Reserved for romance

Every living thing is in love.  by Kat

 

serenity now

In my last post, Peepin’ Out, I described my encounter with  some  test bags of Doritos Jacked.  Since then, I realized that the incident was still bothering me.  I am reluctant to write anything more about it because I do not wish to bring any attention to the product.  Neither do I wish to linger in its wake.  I am sensitive to being in the proximity of things that have bad energy.

I also worry that I drone on too much regarding matters related to junk food.  There are so many more interesting things to focus on and write about in this big world of food and eating to which I devote my attention.  Should I not be promoting positive messaging and discussing new and wonderful ways to nourish the body and soul?  Can’t I just be perky and progressive?  I find and follow so many adorable and inspiring blogs.  It seems however, that I have been assigned to the night shift, enlisted to cover the underbelly of the nutritional world.  My beat is often in the neighborhoods of the most vulnerable.  So, forgive me this further investigation of the matter.

a summer day at uncle bob's

a summer day at uncle bob’s

My mission is to help the masses achieve both physical harmony and emotional bliss as it relates to what we put in our mouths.  Teach people to eat right states my job description.  Restore the order of things.  Ensure that each generation attains a longer lifespan than the previous one.  Put back “adult-onset”  into the description of Type 2 Diabetes.  Decrease health care expenditures on lifestyle related chronic diseases and save our economy.  Oh, and make us all be sleek and slim.

OK, I say as I don my kale green robe and  lemony yellow gloves as part of my requisite super nutritionist uniform.   How hard can it be?  Humankind has achieved many miraculous things. Solutions to myriad problems have been creatively achieved.  Hearing and sight have been restored, outer space has been explored, cars will soon no longer require drivers.  All I have to do is make people eat more fruits and vegetables.  Onward. And then, damn, I am brought to my knees by my arch nemesis–a bag of chips.

Throughout the past few weeks,I have been swimming in the usual news–efforts by some members of Congress to roll back the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which set higher standards for school lunches, increases in global obesity, the recent opening of the film Fed Up, and gun violence.  Amid these stories, I realized I had not gotten over the chip thing.

Initially, I had presumed that  the promotion of those test bags was being carried out only in the convenience store where I was–another strategic plan just to annoy me.  It then dawned on me that maybe it was actually part of a larger effort and perhaps there was something more I could learn about it.  A quick search led me to an online discussion of these new test flavors.  Apparently, Frito-Lay/PepsiCo charges customers to help them develop new sensory stimulating ingredient formulations.  I also learned that this jacked variety already existed.  Yikes.  It was already too late then to intervene with a large-scale letter writing campaign.  The chips were already jacked.

What did jacked even mean?   None of the definitions I have found seemed really applicable to a snack food.  Is it market speak for GMO corn laden with MSG, seven artificial colors, and 140 calories per six chips? Does it refer to the bigger, bolder, and thicker attributes that the angry-looking packaging boasts?  Are regular Doritos tiny, meek and scrawny by comparison?  I really have no clue about the answers to any of those questions, but I am certain we have  been jacked enough–and certainly hijacked when it comes to feeding the citizenry health-sustaining food.

Recently, Olivier de Schutter, the  United Nations’ Special Rapporteur (cool title), submitted his final report to the UN Human Rights Council on the right to food.  Mark Bittman summarized the report which “analyzes  a food crisis that is international and systemic.  It maintains  that the will of the citizens and countries of the world can be powerful tools in making a new food system, one that is smart and sustainable and fair and describes that all over the world food systems are being rebuilt from the bottom up.  And, it argues for statutory regulation on the marketing of food products.”

It is worth a look at the company link above to see the extreme global reach of these ill-devised products that find their way into the mouths of babes.  An article in the recent issue of periodiCALS (the magazine of Cornell University’s college of Agriculture and Life Sciences) discussed current efforts in India to address malnutrition and growth stunting (which affects an estimated 341 million children worldwide).  A researcher described the work being done in an extremely remote village that cannot be reached by land transport for three months a year during the rainy season.  There, where such problems are endemic, young children are observed buying shining packets of cheese puffs and potato chips.  The infiltration of this junk into this far corner of the world is noted.  I am not shocked, though I am disturbed.

What motivates the continued development and insidious promotion of these adulterated and manipulated food stuffs?  When do their makers say, enough already?  Let’s lay down our guns and claim our pyrrhic victory for the damage has been done and enough money made at the expense of others.  I believe it is time to act upon de Schutter’s assessment that, “Many of us have arrived at the conviction that junk food and sugary drinks are like tobacco and deserve to be treated in the same way.”

There are so many wonderful people promoting incredible efforts to nourish the earth and its inhabitants in a kind and gentle manner, intelligently and respectfully.  Their work is beginning to make a difference.  No jacking required.  I hope to highlight some of the amazing, loving and creative initiatives that have come to my attention in some upcoming posts.  I am humbled by and grateful for what they are doing.  They are making my job easier.

Well, thanks for letting me get this off my chest.  As always, your thoughts are welcomed.  Let’s welcome summer,  its bounty and those who grace us with its goodness.

In health,

Elyn 

P.S.  Your MyPlate Photo or Haiku can be right here when you send them to me!

Rose's Plate

Rose’s Plate

MyPlate Haiku

Pick your own today,

Happy kids in wide-brimmed hats,

Sweet summertime fruit.   by Nan

 

 

 

 

peepin’ out

Boy, it has been awhile since I have last posted.  Something happened in mid-April or right before Easter that might have affected this. Somehow, word got through to me, that Peeps would now be sold year round.   I can’t say if I was aware or not that Peeps, those brightly colored marshmallow bunnies and chicks, only appeared on the market for a relatively short period of time each year in order to celebrate the Resurrection.  Truth be told, I am really naive and poorly informed on certain things, like candy and religion.  I have been confused for decades between Cabbage Patch Dolls and Sour Patch candies–I think that is what they are called.  During nutritional consults, I confess that I have uttered the words, ” Do you eat like Cabbage Patch Doll candies?”  Not just randomly of course, but in the context of an assessment when I am trying to demurely and professionally interpret someone’s intake.

Somewhere halfway between childhood and deciding to become a nutritionist, I managed to wean myself off of my predilection for sugar woven into various seductive forms.  Maybe the end of my relationship with Peeps coincided with my commitment to a vegetarian diet. Eating anything with a face became more distasteful, even if it was just an adorable ball of fluff.  I have managed to avoid the things for a long while except for a time where a co-worker enjoyed flaunting her love of them in front of me like the Adoration.

But, upon hearing the news that Peeps would be popping up in stores on a daily basis, I reacted like Puxatawny Phil seeing his shadow on that fateful Groundhog’s Day.  Down into the burrow, I hastily fled. Just when I thought that maybe things were getting a little better regarding our capacity to ameliorate incoming incarnations of sugar, this information startled me.  To soften the blinding light of  blatant commercialism, I had no choice but to go into the dark place below.

By candlelight, I read the small print.  Peeps are stewarded by the Just Born Company in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. According to the website, the wonderful combination of sweet colored sugar and fluffy marshmallow creates an unforgettable taste experience.   And, furthermore, it states a great candy isn’t made, it’s just born. Jesus!  Don’t these guys realize how bunnies multiply and that chicks are no slackers either when it comes to population growth?  I guess they do.  Apparently, 5.5 million Peeps are born each day!

This pronouncement of  a seemingly immaculate conception in Bethlehem, rather than some sticky mess, presented a whole new ball of carnauba wax–one of the ingredients in Peeps along with sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, potassium sorbate, natural flavors and red 3, blue 1, yellow 6, or yellow 5 depending on the color.  With 6.8 grams of sugar, each Peep is endowed with 1.5 (rounding down) teaspoons of essentially pure sugar–the kind that sends our bodies into metabolic-altering, insulin-demanding, fat-storing sugar shock.

In my quest to find out more about this situation, I was forced back above ground.  Donning sunglasses, my research led me to my local national chain drug store where I made a few laps around the multi-aisle candy section disguised as a normal sugar craving person.  I was forced to blow my cover by asking the clerk where the Peeps were.  She reacted as if I must be from another planet.  I did not bother to defend my citizenship as an earthling and neither did I explain the whole groundhog thing.   But I did say my query had scientific purpose–or something like that.  Obviously, Peeps were not to be found after Easter.  I was six weeks too late.

But, I said, I thought they were available all year now, in a widening array of flavors.  She had not gotten that memo.  She instructed me to go to the company website if I wanted more information.  I thought that was funny.  She did add though that this year she had gotten her little daughter some watermelon ones, so maybe I was right.  I  stiffened like a stale Peep.

Like Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield who deemed himself the protector of childhood innocence,  perhaps I take my influence as a nutritionist of the people and for the people a bit too seriously.  In my head, I am charged on a daily basis to personally obliterate obesity, or on a larger scale to clean up this whole nutritional mess and its adherent ills.   I liked the care and assistance the drug store clerk had given me despite her initial recoil, and now by association, I cared about her daughter.  Could I not issue a global recall of these wolves in chicks’ clothing candies due to salmonella poisoning, avian flu or something to save the children?  My usual quandary about how to reconcile the intentions of capitalist markets and the public health smacked me in the face along with another more subtle underlying dilemma–who am I to take sugar from a baby?  Don’t they need some sweetness in this cruel harsh world?

Well, I figured it was time to move back up.  As by now spring had finally arrived in these parts after the long, extended rodent-predicted winter,  I decided it should be safe to step back into the sunlight.  Besides, another holiday was upon us– Memorial Day.  This one, should actually quell our insatiable appetites, right?  But, alas, like Holden, I was once again in for some surprises.

A little weekend travel led me into a highway rest stop convenience store.  There, upon the laden Frito-Lay chip rack I noticed two different generic bags labeled, Doritos Jacked–Test Flavors 404 and 2658. Jesus. I am not positive, but I  think the deal is that if you buy a bag you get to let someone know how jacked you were.  Have you ever encountered such a thing?  The ingredients list was complete with all of the usual suspects that entice and entwine us.  I had a sudden urge to barricade the rack to prevent the innocents from getting their hands on these  hyperactivity-inducing substances.  But, then I thought, hey, don’t those good folk down there at Frito-Lay and PepsiCo deserve to make a little profit?  Just look at all those flavor scientists they are providing work for.  And, aren’t our kids maybe just a little too mellow?  Besides, I have read the Frito-Lay Promise.  Apparently I can relax, it is all good.

Oh well.  Send word.  Let me know what you think or just say hi.  I miss you.

In health, Elyn

P.S.  News Flash–3 D Printers are now producing sugary confections (and spinach quiche).

P.P.S.  For fun Peep art check  this out.

027 My Plate Haiku

Lagoon watercress

Peppers my tongue

With spring joy.

by Roxanne

My Plate

 

 

meditation v medication march madness rerun

This is a slight revision of one of my earliest posts.   I present this older one while I am busy meditating this week on matters such as the recent break through news about saturated fats and heart disease; 24/7 automated cupcake dispensaries; and, the myriad of nutritional dilemmas that cross my path daily.  

Once upon a time, I was walking down the hall of the Health Center. Passing a closed exam room, I heard the doctor who was inside with a patient say, “Here’s a meditation for you”.  Ah, meditation. Instantaneously, I felt my spine lengthen, my breath deepen and my third eye got a nice little buzz.

Anne-Marie’s eggs

But wait. Which of the Young Living Essential Oils that I frequently use had I just inhaled? Was it the oil blend Hope or Dreamcatcher? I must have been hoping or dreaming. By the time my foot that was in back had overstepped the other one and placed itself in front on the cold, hard and very clean commercial tile, I realized she hadn’t said meditation. She said medication. Of course, silly of me. Where did I think i was?

I must digress for a moment.  The floors in the Health Center are incredibly shiny.  Everyday, they are cleaned in Zen-like fashion by a woman named Pam.  After dancing with the waxing machine,  she traces every seam with a long stick with a tennis ball attached to the end, and then with tiny little tools she meticulously erases every scuff mark with the hands of a surgeon.  The place glistens.

Perhaps my momentary delusion was fueled by the fact that the night before I had seen this amazing film called, May I Be Frank.  It is the true tale of transformation on the physical, emotional and spiritual planes of an overweight, lonely, ill, middle-aged ex-addict named Frank, living in San Francisco.  His soul yearning unexpectedly leads him into a raw food restaurant named Cafe Gratitude and the story begins. Through the use of whole foods, affirmations, holistic health modalities, and the receiving of love, true and profound healing ensues. In the film, there is a scene where he goes to a massage therapist. The massage unleashes a deep emotional release in Frank that simultaneously relieves his chronic back pain. I noticed that on the table in the massage room was a collection of Young Living Essential Oils that I am sure were used.  I tell you, these oils are powerful.

How many times a day is the word medication used in the Health Center?  I even say it about eleven times – and  I am mainly talking about green beans and sardines. Venturing a guess–seven hundred and nine times. No, I don’t think I am exaggerating. If anything, I am underestimating.  There is a lot of medication going down.  (Just today I saw a statistic that said 70% of Americans are on at least one prescription medication.)

Imagine if we could subliminally say meditation instead of medication this many times. What meditation are you taking? I am going to prescribe you some meditation. What’s that? You are calling for a refill on your meditation? Which one? You can pick it up at the sanctuary–along with your wheat grass. That would simply and certainly alter the medical paradigm.

We would do well to consider our health facilities more so like holy temples with acolytes arriving for sustenance and to promote meditation as a veritable ally in the healing of ills.  Though the practice of integrative medicine is growing in acceptance and availability–my yearning is to see it accessible and as a model of care–particularly in high risk communities. This film is one of many these days that provide witness to inspiration, possibility and even necessity.  Pam’s devotion to her task has prepared the sacred ground.  When the time comes, may we be ready.

In health, Elyn

In honor of the egg–its promise of rebirth, its seasonal symbolic representations and its role as an example of dietary dithering–for the month of April I will gladly accept submissions of MyPlate Eggs of your own inspiration.  Thanks to my multi-talented friend Anne-Marie for her beautiful  Ukranian pysanky eggs.  Please submit in comments or at zimcat@verizon.net).

IMG_0612

Emma’s My Egg

 

My Plate Haikus

The farmers’ market/Each egg at the dairy stand/A different color.  by Enki

Food made joyfully/As a gift of time and self/Feeds body and soul.  by Anne-Marie

Sid Caesar Salad

It happened again–my finding a nutrition-related story (or it finding me) where I least expected it.  This time it was not “not a laughing matter”–but actually rather amusing.

Always appreciative of those who have made the world a funnier place, the recent passing of the comedian Sid Caesar led Pete and me to look for some footage of this icon of American humor.   I sat nearby as he clicked here and there on his computer.  He immediately started laughing, listening to the “double talk” for which Caesar was particularly famous.   

Soon I was giggling with him.  A few minutes later, he told me to come look at what he just found.  I leaned over as he played a sketch for me from Caesar’s long running TV show, Your Show of Shows, called  Health Food Restaurant .  This piece dates to the early 1950s.   Caesar and Imogene Coca play a married couple out to dinner at a fancy New York City restaurant.  Yet instead of the steak, sausage, snails and hot tamales that Caesar craves, here at the Vitality Health Food Kitchen where Coca has taken him, there is only pala  paka plant blossoms; the Vitamin B1 B2 B3 C D and H Dinner for Two; homogenized bone meal and wheat germ with a side of cructose; and, spaghutti, made from a cabbage extract and a cauliflower derivative.  Caesar of course mocks, whines, pleads and gags his way through the menu as described by the waiter, played by Carl Reiner–who you may recall, I once met. But, impressed by the youthfulness and vitality of the other diners, and in an earnest attempt to appease his wife, he forgoes his personal desires and literally digs in to the dinner salad served with a set of gardening tools for silverware.

Although “health food” and “plant-based” proponents and movements have probably been around since our Paleo beginnings,  there was just something very surprising about seeing this sketch which was made during a period after which we seemed to have left vegetables behind on rural farms and before the Back to Nature movements of the 1970s.  It was a time maybe of boiled potatoes and  blanched green beans at best which also coincided with the peak years for deaths from heart disease.  As this interesting history details, it was also a  time marked by an increase in the use of hydrogenated fats and vegetable oils and the advent of pasteurized milk.

I am not sure we can pinpoint the nadir of the American diet.   Though the 1950′s can be critiqued for its focus on meat and dairy along with the increased use of processed foods, plasticized fats and high smoking rates, things seem to have gotten a whole lot worse since then.  I don’t think we have  hit bottom but there are some signs we are beginning to emerge from the Dark Ages.

Perhaps I am just being a little naive.  Just as we don’t believe that people in the “old days” ever had sex, maybe I can’t imagine the nature of health food consciousness before my own time and the dietary context in which it existed.   Though the use of refined sugar is presented as a modern-day scourge, its grip took hold long ago.  A brief look into biographical information about health and fitness guru Jack LaLanne who was born in 1914–ages ago–interestingly states that he described himself as a sugarholic and junk food addict as a young boy with associated  behavioral problems.   His early education about natural foods changed the course of his life.  Of course, attention to the attainment of physical, emotional and spiritual health has coursed through human history, the admonishment of gluttony is a big theme in the Bible, and there have always been grandmas telling us to eat our vegetables.

Nonetheless, Health Food Restaurant seems quite anachronistic for its day–at least six years before Jack LaLanne’s pioneering fitness show began airing nationally in 1959.  Although it was just a spoof, it  seemed rather prescient addressing  current anti-aging and food toxicity issues.  One of the dishes is mentioned to be good for the ankles.  The edema of the lower extremities is a common symptom of poor heart, kidney or liver function.  Interestingly, Sid Caesar who seriously battled alcohol  addiction and depression eventually became a devoted natural food and fitness adherent to which he credited his healing–and maybe his longevity, being 91 at the time of his passing.

The sketch touched on a few things that I think about.   It reveals the intensity of our food attachments and belief systems and even their influence on relationships.  Though we usually reference money, sex and religion as divisive issues, food and eating habits probably belong somewhere on that list.

Additionally, it looks at the  center of a society’s dietary culture at any given time and how far out is its fringe.  How and why did the standard American diet evolve and deteriorate in such a relatively short period of time compared to other cultures?  What was sacred and what was sacrilege as we shifted from rabbit stew and acorns, to beef and potatoes, to chicken nuggets and french fries?   Nature, economics, politics, biology, capitalism, and science all drove this complicated national trajectory.  For all that was good and bad, it seems that we did not slow down and smell the pala paka blossoms and those that did were either ignored or derided.  It is interesting now to see how the tide is turning as we confront current health and environmental crises.  It is those who were on the fringe who may be forging our new direction.

Mockery is an innate  behavior with evolutionary purposes that makes us defensively joke before we proceed.  Some from the tribe must be brave enough to venture out while the others sit back and have a good laugh at their expense.  Thank God laughter seems to be good for our health.  I am particularly grateful to  those who bless us with their humor because as I look down as I stomp around in the primordial swamp of  our food culture,  I see far too many swollen ankles–enough to break my heart.  RIP Mr. Caesar.

Well, as they say at the Vitality Health Food Kitchen, “Good Health To You and Good Health To Everybody”.

Please drop in for a virtual cup of tea and say hello.

In health,  Elyn

susan's plate

susan’s plate

My Plate Haiku

Hearts are not just

Reserved for romance

Every living thing is in love.   By, Kat

(This post is dedicated to my friend Susan who is heading out to join the Peace Corps.  May her plate and heart be filled with good things.)

inventive incentive

To make bread or give love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone. In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.

Barbara Brown Taylor ~ (An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith)

On a cloudy and dreary Saturday morning in October, I headed into Albany to catch up with the ever busy Veggie Mobile to see if I could get a glimpse of the Veggie Rx Program in action.  It is not that I had never seen it before—I have.  However, I wanted to observe it with full attention.  It had been almost two years since I began overseeing this fruit and vegetable prescription incentive program that I had helped to create, and as a concerned mom, needed to check in on it and see how it was doing.       

Prescription incentive programs, similar to Veggie Rx, wherein fruits and vegetables are “prescribed” by health care providers to encourage consumption, have begun to emerge in the past few years.  They are being considered as a model of a viable public health intervention for disenfranchised communities.  Until just recently, I administered this program at the Health Center.  

Though each program is designed and funded through different means, this particular one was established to serve a fifty person caseload of patients diagnosed with diabetes and/or hypertension.  Once recruited and enrolled through the medical providers at the Health Center, the participants receive prescription coupons valued at $7 each, to be redeemed weekly on Capital District Community Gardens’ (CDCG) Veggie Mobile.  This physician-based approach  offers powerful messaging regarding healthy eating from an institution that traditionally proffers mainly pharmaceutical solutions and well-meaning but often weak recommendations for health behavior change.

I met up with the Veggie Mobile that day in the city’s Arbor Hill neighborhood.  Parked at the corner of a side street, it was a burst of color in a rather gray landscape.  That brightly painted truck always shows up representing the rainbow, but it is the activity that it fosters that is the pot of gold.

Among the customers were two Veggie Rx participants.  One was a woman whom I had recently enrolled in the program.  There with her two young granddaughters, ‘patient with diabetes’ transformed into ‘loving grandma’ as she solicited the girls’ advice for what to choose that week.   The other was a gentleman whom had been enrolled in the program early on but who had not participated much initially.  I had called him months before to discuss removing him from the program—he asked me not to.  He explained that he had experienced a host of health problems but was feeling better and had really wanted to have this opportunity to improve his diet. Sure enough, there he was, purchasing a sophisticated assortment of produce.  He was like a kid in a candy shop.

After an hour there, the dedicated Veggie Mobile staff women closed up shop to head over to the next scheduled stop.  I hopped in my car and followed them as they got back on and off the highway and made their way over to a low-income housing complex—not too far from the Governor’s Mansion.  Arriving there, I saw about twelve people waiting.   More came along later.  Two  other Veggie Rx participants whom I knew were there  They were surprised to see me and greeted me with smiles and hugs.

This was a busy site, so I assisted with bagging while anchoring myself at a good vantage point.  Shopping on the Veggie Mobile begs some patience—but perhaps not any more than waiting in a fast food drive-thru line.  Here though, there was connection, community and lots of conversation about good food.  Men, women and children were present.  There was squeezing back and forth as people reached to add another sweet potato, banana or onion to their order.  All forms of monetary equivalent “green” — money, SNAP EBT cards, New York State Fresh Connect and Farmer’s Market Coupons along with the cute Veggie Rx coupons were exchanged for the real green—collards, kale, green beans, green peppers and broccoli.

This collaborative Veggie Rx Program was born out of CDCG’s insatiable quest to bring any and all options for healthy food to places and people who have long been deprived; coupled with the imperative that drives my own nutritional work—that healthy food must be provided as medicine to address the scourge of our chronic diseases.  Teaching about healthy eating when the local landscape is devoid of the ingredients necessary to attain it is an exercise in futility.  

Despite having given substantial  thought, time and care  to Veggie Rx, I am still not exactly sure what this and other similar programs are about.  There are a few possibilities.  It could be a token, feel-good, short-term experiment or the template for a new health and food revolution.  As I have researched the findings of other  incentive based programs, I can see that there are still many questions to be answered.  It may be difficult to decide if the program is worth all the effort for the few that it serves.  Can this little grass-roots project put even the tiniest dent in the massive problem it is trying to solve?   Can a few fruits and vegetables a week really affect change?

What I  do know is that I have seen it change the behaviors and well-being of a number of the patients I managed in the program.  Let me strengthen that.  I have witnessed some profound changes in individuals due to this program.  There has been some powerful “medicine” going down.  Some participants have started juicing or making smoothies, and some have taken to more plant-based diets.  Many have noticeably become more enlivened.  I have also seen improvements in individuals’ health markers–though to see those markers shift in a significant way for this highly  challenged population will take time.  I caution not to base the success of these types of programs solely on those indicators–it is too myopic a lens.

The Veggie Rx Program offers more than just food and is about something greater than the consumption of produce.  Relationship building, the true foundation of this program, is what distinguishes it from others that mainly enhance food access.  This power of relationship–that between the participants and the Health Center and Veggie Mobile staff is not to be underestimated.   Having personally undertaken an evaluation of some aspects of this program and through my direct contact with the participants, I know that they feel better valued as both patients and customers which increases their engagement in both roles.  And, that they consider this program to be a blessing in their lives.

My visit to the Veggie Mobile on that fall morning highlighted some particular aspects of the program that I had not fully appreciated.  Assuming patients’ engagement in these types of programs is not a given.  Enrollment comes with some requirements which asks something deeper of its recipients.  The coupons are not purely a handout.  Not everyone enrolled takes advantage of the program, but the majority do–and some quite extensively.

Witnessing the participants actually shopping on the Veggie Mobile provided evidence that the mere act of showing up and filling one’s bag with beautiful produce reflects a powerful commitment to one’s health.  It also sheds light on what a new paradigm of  health care could look like–particularly in response to the problems associated with health disparities–but in the larger context as well.  I returned home with a reassurance that my little toddler-aged program was behaving appropriately.

As always, greetings, thoughts, and inspiration welcomed.

In health, Elyn

Related Articles:

Food Trust/Policy Link:  Access to Healthy Food and Why it Matters

Double Value Coupon Program–Diet and Shopping Behavior Study

Building Healthy Communities Through Equitable Food Access

my plate

my plate

My Plate Haiku

Food is medicine

Farmers are doctors, Cooks priests

Eat, pray, eat, pray, love.  By Gordon

dominique et moi

November was Diabetes Awareness month.  Or, so I am told.   For me, every month is diabetes month and every day is diabetes day, as nary an hour goes by without my sharing sacred space with someone who has diabetes.  Sometimes this is the shell-shocked newly diagnosed, other times, it is the weary veteran of the disease.

So, a few weeks ago when my dear friend and favorite diabetes educator Marie handed me a flyer of some local events in my community, sponsored by one of the national diabetes organizations, I agreed to distribute copies to my patients.  I did not notice its calendar based significance but I did catch sight of something else instead.  Tucked among the listings for some talks at a nearby hotel on various dietary topics, like Healthy Eating for the Holidays by some local nutrition educators–was mention of a presentation to be made by Dominique Wilkins–the former NBA All-Star.  My inner basketball jones, relatively well tuned from my life with Pete and Morgan perked up.   photo (2)

Dominique Wilkins–who was just so you know, born in France–was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in 2000, just shortly after retiring from his long career.  He is  now a committed ambassador for the cause, passionate about helping others.  While I doubted if many of my patients would travel across town for the other events, I thought some of them might be excited by the prospect of seeing the Human Highlight Film to make the effort.  I told Marie to get the date posted on our electronic message board.

A few days later Marie called me into her office and said, look at this. Our CEO was informing her that the basketball legend’s PR folk had offered us a drop-in appearance at the Health Center and was wondering if we could garner interest with only a few days notice.  Go for it, I exclaimed giddily, anxious for the opportunity to present some celebrity inspiration at our humble clinic.  I quickly found a few other employees who shared my excitement and called a few of my “guys”, apologizing for making any assumptions about race, gender, age and sports interest.  When a 13-year-old patient of mine who I mentioned it to seemed quite aware of Mr. Wilkins’ basketball legacy and  excitedly understood the significance of such a visit, I maintained my enthusiasm.

At the appointed day and time, wearing sensible high heels to enhance my own short stature, I walked through the doors to the waiting room and there was Dominique Wilkins–graceful and stunning.  I went right up to him, looked way up, introduced myself and shook his hand.  We were now on a first name basis.  I told him my husband taught me to enjoy the game of basketball by watching him play.  I appreciate sport for its expression of the human body and its choreography, and Dominique certainly embodied both.  He seemed touched.

The crowd in the waiting room was small but attentive.  Some were there to see him.  Others were just innocently waiting for their medical appointments.  Dominique addressed his mixed audience.  Basically, his impromptu message was that diabetes is a serious but manageable disease.  Do what you have to do to deal with it.  He matter-of-factly listed the basic dictates:  do some physical activity that you enjoy for at least thirty minutes on most days, give up the sweets, stop drinking juice and soda and follow your doctor’s advice.

Apparently, as he was talking his talk, a woman sitting behind me was reacting with noticeable disbelief.   He challenged her discomfort and questioned her on what she was thinking. She essentially said she thought he was talking crazy stuff.   These simple declarations which are easy to espouse, are unfathomable and overwhelming to many.  She didn’t seem to care who this man was.  He may as well have told her to go cut off her toe.

Diabetes is crazy making.  No other health condition asks so much of so many. The multiple actions required for ‘self-management’ may seem  as extreme as self-mutilation.  Once the blood is commandeered by an excessive army of sugar molecules, it demands some pretty strong sacrifice and extreme behavioral changes in a bargain to help assure that you get to keep all your digits.  It pulls the rug right out from under you when you thought you were just minding your own business.  Minions are condemned for starting the day with that big bright sunny glass of OJ and satisfying thirst with one of those ubiquitous caramel colored elixirs–while watching their shows.  No one said anything about diabetes and how it damages the heart along with the kidneys, nerves, eyes and brain, did they?  As Dominique gently goaded the woman to challenge her resistance, I saw in her face the communal shock of the masses, the same shock that had evidently once brought this Adonis of a man to his own knees when he received his diabetes diagnosis.

I then raised my hand to ask a question.  I was interested to know his thoughts about celebrities–and celebrity athletes in particular–who endorse products known to be detrimental to health.  I did mention a player’s name and I did mention a beverage product.   His defense was a little weak as he responded with “Who wouldn’t do that for a million dollars?”  I don’t know–millionaires, people who know their messages matter, someone who might spend a day with me in my office seeing the onslaught of diabetes–its victims increasingly both younger and more significantly laden with this burden of glucose metabolism gone awry?  He rebounded by saying that many athletes give a lot of their time and money to supporting important causes.  Yes, this is true, but nonetheless, there it was, the constant contradiction.

Yes, the contradiction that favors and forgives corporate irresponsibility while individual and societal health is decimated in its wake.  Another example of the kind that leaves our government and the rest of us pathetically pawing the ground trying to find and fund ways to clean up the mess.   Per year, the company that makes the product I referred to, spends something like 1.7 billion dollars–could that be right–on advertising just its beverages; and the athlete will earn about $60 million.  May I add that the companies that market diabetes drugs are also raking in some big bucks.  Meanwhile, my patients and many like them sit among the rubble of a broken health care and food system often without two good glucometer strips to rub together.

Dominique’s response did not diminish my admiration for his work or for his play .  He is doing something valuable in bringing his efforts to this matter.  He showed up and talked to my patients.  They and I appreciated it.  Still, I sighed deeply.  Diabetes can be a grim disease–especially for those without some modicum of financial resources, intelligence and fortitude–and access to good quality food and medicine defined in its truest sense.

Interestingly, Dominique, well endowed with more than a modicum of these necessary ingredients, shared that the most challenging part for him to do in order to address his own diagnosis was exercising.  After 18 years as an elite athlete in top physical form, peeling his body back off the couch and wrangling it back into servitude, was the last thing he wanted to do.

Well, here’s to all the things I would do in service to the public health if I had just a few of those millions of dollars.  What do you think?  What would you do?  Let me know.

In health, Elyn

Check out this infographic from this company American Recall Center which is committed to providing important consumer health information particularly related to prescription drugs and medical devices.   http://www.recallcenter.com/life-diabetes-diabetic-bloggers-want-know/

Rose's Plate

Rose’s Plate

My Plate Haiku

Food is medicine

Farmers are doctors, Cooks priests

Eat, pray, eat, pray, love.  by Gordon