When I looked at a white paper my colleague Kristen Wilson just passed around this week it states that a staggering 59.6% of adults in Ulster County are obese or overweight. It also pointed out that "If we don't solve this problem, one third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives."
What if one third of our children developed cancer of the digestive system. Why is diabetes just shrugged off so easily?
I want to share a personal account about diabetes and obesity. It's actually an account of a culture in flux and how it impacted my family.
I remember my mother describing her first soda. She described the wonderful, dizzying sensation of how this exotic, cold, fizzy liquid had tickled as it went down her throat. It was luxurious. It was to be savored.
My mother was typical of the wave of immigrants moving to NYC in the 1950’s. She was raised on a farm in the central mountains of Puerto Rico. She made wonderful traditional dishes: stews, soups, rice, beans, seasoned with traditional condiments.
I remember the smoky wet charcoal smell from the times when we visited the family farm. I'm not sure when a farm is considered a plantation, but the main crop was sugar cane. We lived there for a while too. I spent many peaceful hours in the mango grove and avoided the lemon trees because the bees made their hives there.
But I was facinated by the kitchen. It was the center of the universe.There was a flurry of hands chopping and mixing and grinding, kneading. The commotion, laughter and singing from my aunts and cousins made cooking joyful. There was a profusion of fresh fruit from the trees and vegetables from the land. There were eggs, avocados, plantains, bannanas and breadfruit available every day. Root vegetables boiled, chickens were slaughtered, milk was brought in, warm and thick.
These women, who lined up to make pasteles, a time consuming process, were connected to each other and to this food, and to this farm. This farm was what gave us life. It connected us to it all -- the good and the bad -- like the plantains that were fried, then pressed flat, dipped in a garlic sauce...and fried again.
It’s a bittersweet memory remembering how we ate as I was growing up. Mother's love was doled out through the sweet cafe con leche with saltine crackers we had for breakfast, and the diluted sweetened Tang with dinner. There was an abundance of sweets: coconut candy, guava paste, caramel candies, rice pudding, bread pudding, flans, tembleque. The sweetness, like sucking the juice out of the stalk of sugar cane, was love. My mouth waters when I remember the smell of the sweetened, condensed milk.
Her long work hours meant the delicious food she once prepared started to become too cumbersome. The processed foods were cheap, easy, and sanctioned by the Spanish media. She became, what she thought, was a modern mother.
In came the canned beans followed by the canned soups. Condiments took too long to prepare daily, so the MSG packets and ready made sofrito took out most of the preptime.Then longer hours at work and my father's illness meant even more of our food came from cans and packages.
I don't think my mother ever made the connection that this food was hurting all of us. She and two of my three sisters developed type 2 diabetes. One died from complications due to this disease.
Understanding this epidemic… the long road to awareness
The severity of this epidemic became clear when I read a mind-boggling article in the New York Times about how diabetes was running rampant in East Harlem.
This article outlined a lack of education, poverty, cultural issues, obesity, poor food choices and the disparity of the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables and wholesome, and general unprocessed, fresh foods.
This article brought back a flood of images. The free summer camp lunch: a can of soda and a bologna sandwich on white bread. I remembered how the mortar and pestle migrated to the back of the counter, replaced by the electric can opener.
What does this have to do with Ulster County?
Although we are not the epicenter of this epidemic, our stats are appalling. We have a moral obligation to turn this around. Through my job at CCE, my colleagues and I are working on an awareness campaign. It's a muti-faceted project, but the goal is quite simple. We're trying to help protect our children from being the first generation to be less healthy than their parents.
Ulster County has urban and rural communities. Both need access to fresh wholesome food. So let’s support our local farmers and their farm stands. Let's eat local. Let’s start more farmers' markets, family gardens, community gardens. Let’s figure out how to get fresh foods to everyone’s kitchen, schools, food pantries and soup kitchens. Let’s turn off the computer and television, go outside, meet each other, and learn to grow, cook and sustain each other. Let's celebrate as we cook, eat, and clean up together.
So if you see me waving kale and carrots and passing out flyers on Broadway in front the Kingston Farmers' Market in Midtown, you'll know why. This market, in the heart of Midtown Kingston, represents a seed of hope. It's just one way this foodie will kick this crazy epidemic in the as-paragus, one veggie at a time!