Share Your Holidays: Diabetes Wellness Program helps make healthy food options more accessible

Published: Dec. 10, 2019 at 11:03 AM CST
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Chris Valenti's weekly routine involves walking miles through the hallways of Upland Hills Health in Dodgeville, in addition to the hours of exercise he puts in on the machines.

"I enjoy this," he says as he walks on one of the center's treadmills. The regimen has become his new normal after a series of health scares.

"I've had four heart attacks now and 16 procedures, so it gets a little iffy," Valenti said. "I console myself that everyone dies at one point in their life, I would just like to make my day later on."

Because of his heart problems, Valenti hasn't been able to work. He says now, his only form of income is his social security, which can make money tight.

"I go to the local food pantries and I would just look at it and say okay, this is what I have to eat because I have no other options," Valenti said. He said some grocery store pricetags can be out of his budget.

While Valenti says he is always grateful for food pantries, sometimes he's unable to eat the food available because it isn't heart healthy. As someone with heart problems, Valenti needs to watch the amount of sodium in his diet, which canned or boxed foods often have.

"For patients with diabetes and congestive heart failure or other cardiac problems, the first line of treatment is good nutrition," said Laura Isaacson, Director of Clinical Nutrition and Community Outreach at Upland Hills Health. "When I talk to my patients, I talk to them about eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and low fat dairy products. For people who struggle with food insecurity, it can be really difficult for them to eat those foods."

Another barrier that can stand between patients with heart failure or diabetes facing food insecurity from getting the foods they need can be distance to a grocery store. Isaacson said especially in rural communities, the convenient shopping option may be a gas station or convenience store, which may not carry healthy options.

"This is something we see in the rural communities, there is difficulty with accessing these fresh and healthy foods," she said. "People in this county also have access to transportation as an issue for them."

Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin is working to alleviate those challenges, through the Diabetes Wellness Program.

"We take healthy foods that are diabetic friendly that we give out to the pantries, and then they are able to give those to their participants who are diabetic," said Julie Hitt, Volunteer Coordinator for the Diabetes Wellness Program.

The program, which has been around for three years, caters to people facing food insecurity who have diabetes or heart failure and need to watch things like sodium, sugar, or carbohydrate intake.

"We use whole grains, lean proteins, fresh foods and vegetables, and foods that are low in sugars, no added sugars and carbs and that sort of thing," Hitt said.

All of those fresh produce items and proteins, as well as items like no sugar added pasta sauce, are boxed up and distributed to Second Harvest's partner pantries and medical centers, where participants like Valenti can receive them.

Hitt said the boxes also contain nutritional information as well as recipes to help participants prepare the food they receive.

"By the middle of the month when I do get this box, I'm in real need of it because I can't really afford to go to the grocery store and buy the fresh lettuce and tomatoes and all the other products that I'm given," said Valenti.

According to Isaacson, Valenti isn't the only participant at Upland Hills Health who has enjoyed the boxes.

"Everybody who's been enrolled in the program has been so happy, it has exceeded their expectations," she said. "I've had people tell me they have never eaten so many fruits and vegetables in their lives."

Those fruits and vegetables are helping Valenti keep defying the odds.

"At 47 I was given, maybe if I'm lucky, another year to live," said Valenti.

"I'm doing this just to spite the doctors now. I'm 66 years old and I'm still going fairly strong."

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