Feeding America's Diabetes Initiative - Helping Clients Manage their Health

March 17, 2014
by Kim Prendergast

By Kim Prendergast, RD, MPP Consulting Project Manager for the Feeding America Diabetes Initiative

Nearly 26 million Americans have diabetes, living with the challenges of balancing the food that they eat to manage their blood sugar. People with diabetes need to choose the right kinds of foods and eat the right amounts at each meal. Many people take pills or even insulin shots multiple times each day.

For those struggling with food insecurity, managing diabetes can be nearly impossible. The right kinds of foods may be out of reach and many of those individuals have to make tradeoffs — choosing between buying food and paying for the medications that their doctors prescribe for their diabetes and other illnesses. This leads to poor blood sugar control; putting people at risk for long-term complications of their diabetes. And people struggling with food access issues in addition to their diabetes are also much more burdened by the disease, making other aspects of their life more difficult, as well.

Over the last three years, our food banks involved in the Feeding America Diabetes Initiative have been working to make things a little bit easier for people facing the dual challenges of food insecurity and diabetes. With funding from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, the Food Bank of Corpus Christi (Corpus Christi, TX), the Mid-Ohio Foodbank (Columbus, OH) and the Redwood Empire Food Bank (Santa Rosa, CA) have teamed up with local health clinics, hospitals and doctor's offices to provide intensive support to more than 1,500 individuals with diabetes to help them manage their disease.

A box of nutritious food ready for distribution

Clients coming to food pantries are screened for diabetes, then offered a diabetes-friendly box containing whole grains, fruits & vegetables, lean meat and low-fat dairy foods to help them make good choices for their meals. They also access health education classes and diabetes handouts along with nutrition tips and recipes for using the food items in the box. And clients without a doctor are referred to a local provider who can make sure they get the healthcare services, including medication and blood sugar testing supplies that they need to manage their disease.

As part of the project, physicians have also been trained to talk to their patients about food access, recognizing that they can't manage their health if they can't afford the right foods. More than 400 of the clients in the project are ones who were referred by their doctor who identified that food could be the real medicine that they needed to improve their diabetes care.

From this project, we're learning about the kinds of foods that are most helpful to people with diabetes and how to best structure the educational classes in a format to help them manage their diabetes. We're also learning that the support that clients get from the program staff - in addition to the food they receive - is helping them to feel less burdened and more confident in their ability to manage their health.

For examples on how our diabetes initiative is impacting the people we serve, watch the story of Judy and read a quote from Lois, below.

I didn't have enough food before. If I bought food, I didn't have money for medications, and I'd find myself not taking medications. If I bought the medications, I didn't have enough money for food. I tried to alternate them with no success.

I am so grateful to be in this program. I'm taking care of my health now and I'm able to eat and able to balance my meals. I'm now keeping track and know about food portions and what food to have on hand, and I have noticed a big difference on how I feel. - Lois, a client from the Mid-Ohio Foodbank Diabetes Project