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St. Regis Mohawk Health Services provide box gardens to diabetics

AKWESASNE, N.Y. – “The St. Regis Mohawk Health Services in Akwesasne, N.Y. is doing something interesting with their IHS grant funded Healthy Heart Project participants; four years ago they started a community box garden project,” said Yvette Roubideaux, co-director of the Coordinating Center for the Special Diabetes Program for Indians Demonstration Projects. “Apparently in their community there was contamination of the soil and so they could no longer grow in-ground gardens.

“The garden project is teaching participants how to grow fresh fruits and vegetables and how to prepare them with healthy recipes. This helps them improve their diets and reduce the rates of obesity.”

“We provide diabetes self-management education and case management with the help of our physicians, dietitians, fitness specialists, stress reduction and tobacco cessation,” said Janine Rourke, project director for the Mohawk Healthy Heart program. “The case management program involves the delivery of a 10-week Gift of Honoring Heart Health curriculum which the program participants are required to attend.

“We also have our community-based activities and that is where we get creative and fun and do a lot of networking with the community.”

Participants enrolled in the program are tribal members who receive their primary care at the clinic, have type 1 or 2 diabetes, are not on dialysis, are not pregnant and are at least 18 years old.

“We had participants in the Healthy Heart Program who didn’t eat fruits and vegetables because they were too expensive, and they didn’t have the means to till a garden or weren’t able to maintain a large in-ground garden,” said Mera Faubert, administrative assistant and data coordinator for the project. “So, Janine and I brainstormed and came up with the garden project.

“We surveyed 32 of our participants at that time (2005) to see if they would be interested in a cedar form box garden, top soil and vegetables in exchange for maintaining and harvesting their gardens. Out of the 32 surveyed we successfully delivered 18 raised four foot by four foot cedar forms, top soil and 604 assorted vegetables. In Akwesasne – in Mohawk territory – we are labeled as a superfund site. Because of that the people stopped fishing and growing their own gardens due to contamination issues.

“Last year we had 64 Healthy Heart Program participants that were surveyed and we delivered five new raised garden beds and replenished 23 existing gardens. Out of the 64 participants, 15 prepared their own in-ground gardens and we provided them with help in the form of plants,” Faubert said.

“What we have seen here is significant weight loss, increase in physical activity, lifestyle changes in terms of calorie control, healthier eating habits, lower A1c levels and a reduction in their dependence on medication. Not all the data is in on the coordinating end to support that, but this is what we are seeing here at the local level,” Rourke said.

“This Mohawk community has worked very hard within this Healthy Heart Project – along with a great staff – and the community has well-received this project. We have had a lot of successes.”