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CDC promotes traditional foods as diabetes safeguard

ATLANTA, Ga. – “This project is a perfect coming together of traditional and Western science,” said U.S. Public Health Service official Lemyra DeBruyn, about a new Centers for Disease Control effort to help tribes produce traditional foods as a shield against diabetes.

She is field director of the team from the CDC’s Native Diabetes Wellness Program that administers the effort. “We know that diabetes is delayed or prevented by a healthy diet and moderate exercise, and the activities supported by this grant provide both.”

In 2008, the program, called “Using Traditional Foods and Sustainable Ecological Approaches for Health Promotion and Diabetes Prevention in American Indian/Alaska Native Communities,” awarded $100,000 per year for five years (2009 – 2013) to 11 tribal entities from coast to coast. Another six groups just received four-year awards. The funds support gardening, gathering, hunting, storytelling events and more.

“There’s a lot of excitement at the CDC about this project,” said DeBruyn, who has a doctorate in medical anthropology and a background in behavioral and mental health.

“Tribal consultation, previous tribal projects, and formative research had showed us that maintaining the relationship among land, community and local, traditional foods supports traditional health practices. We also learned that these foods are an expression of sovereignty and identity for indigenous peoples, and we wanted to honor that.”

DeBruyn’s colleagues include team leader Dawn Satterfield, RN, PhD; health scientist and epidemiologist Melinda Frank, Diné; and family nurse practitioner Larry Alonso.

Alonso recently returned from visiting one participant, the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project. “The jewel of their program is their kids’ camp. Modern culture distances us from our food sources, and the Catawba program is reversing that. As I watched them, I was also blown away by the sense of community among the children, with teens helping the little ones.”

Another facet of the Catawba program involves communicating with other communities – including Lakota/Dakota and Cherokee – to discover where their heirloom seeds came from years ago and where they might be obtained now.

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DeBruyn said local interests and conditions drive each community’s activities, along with any changes that must be made to the original plans.

“Problems with a site at the senior center meant they couldn’t put in the large in-ground garden they’d planned,” Alonso said. “So, they provided seniors with individual raised-bed gardens instead.”

“If problems arise, we’re shoulder to shoulder with grantees,” DeBruyn said. “We want to provide the framework for them to do what they need. The bottom line is listening and respect.”

Going forward, the Native Diabetes Wellness Program is keeping an eye out for foundation money that might help

communities continue the work done under the CDC grant. Some tribal entities are also looking into spin-off enterprises – such as farmers markets and packaged-foods businesses – that would bring in funds to support the continued presence of traditional foods in their communities.

Encouraging local organizations to purchase the foods will also help.

“We’re encouraging grantees to move this idea into the public-policy domain,” Alonso said. “Traditional food items need to be served at tribal gatherings and in schools and senior centers. Local stores need to carry them.”

From Nov. 16 – 20, representatives of the 17 tribal groups will meet in Albuquerque to report on their activities and share ideas.

DeBruyn admits the fight to protect traditional foods against the forces of modernization and globalization can look daunting. “Yes, it’s a David versus Goliath battle. But we all know how that ended.”

For more on ways you can take advantage of the CDC’s Native Diabetes Wellness Program, contact Larry Alonso (770) 488-5354 or Lemrya DeBruyn (505) 232-9906. In October, the wellness program’s updated Web site will be accessible via