Battling Diabetes on the Street & in the Garden

One can almost detect the longing in Denise Crews’ voice when she describes what foods she misses the most since she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. “The hardest thing to give up was the fried chicken—Popeyes, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Their biscuits. The grease,” Crews told me during a recent LSP podcast interview at a Minneapolis coffee shop. But the 51-year-old has a new passion these days. It is also centered around food, albeit of the much healthier variety.

“I enjoy gardening,” she said. “That was one of the most wonderful experiences to watch these plants grow and then to be able to eat them. Not only were these healthy foods, but the plants smelled and looked good. You should have seen it in August, when they were in full bloom.”

Crews is one of around 20 residents of Hope Community in South Minneapolis who are Denise Crewsraising vegetables in a communal plot that had been an all but abandoned lot just a few years ago. With the help of Land Stewardship Project organizer Anna Cioffi and under the tutelage of LSP board member and master gardener Rhys Williams, residents have learned how to raise healthy food right where they live on a budget.

Hope Community is a place-based community development organization that is entrenched in the Phillips Neighborhood, one of the most economically challenged and diverse neighborhoods in Minneapolis. Hope provides 173 units of affordable housing that is home to some 400 people. Since 2009, LSP has been working with Hope through an initiative called “Growing Neighborhood Access to Healthy Food.” It’s an attempt to build community power and capacity to shape a strong neighborhood-scale system that ensures reliable, affordable and equitable access to healthy food. LSP’s work with Hope Community Garden is a key part of this initiative.

Crews, who is a self-described “city girl” from Washington, D.C., had never gardened before she stepped foot in the Hope Community plots last year. But she said it has already become a key component of her strategy to live a healthy life despite being afflicted with diabetes.

She was diagnosed with the disease in 2004. Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes, and it occurs when the body cannot properly break down all the sugars and starches in food into glucose, which is the basic fuel for the cells in the body. If left untreated, it can lead to heart disease, eye problems, nerve damage, amputations, kidney failure, and, in the worst cases, death. The disease is particularly prevalent in African-Americans, as well as Latino and Native American populations.

Crews is African-American, and so unfortunately was no stranger to the ravages that diabetes can inflict on the body. Relatives had suffered from it, and when she was in her 20s a good friend died as a result of diabetes.

“She was 27. Another friend lost a toe and is blind and she’s only 33,” Crews said. “In the black community, we tend to take Type 2 diabetes for granted. But it’s not just a little bit of extra sugar. It’s no joke.”

Crews had been a vegetarian for a short time as a teen, and had been quite active in her 20s. But in her 30s she became more sedentary as she focused more on her career in the computer industry. She also suffered from sleep apnea, which left her exhausted during the day and craving sugar and high-fat foods just to stay awake. She ballooned up to 265 pounds and her blood sugar levels rose close to 500 at one point—more than four times what’s considered normal. She developed nerve damage and kidney disease as a result.

Crews vowed not to allow the disease to ruin her life.

“I said, ‘I’m going to heal myself,’ ” she recalled.

She researched diabetes on the website of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and also remembered how good she felt when she was eating more fresh, whole foods as a teen.

Crews set about replacing the fried foods and sweets with more fruits, vegetables and lean meats. She also hit the streets and started walking—as much as five miles a day. By 2006 she was off of medication to control her blood sugar, and she’s shed more than 40 pounds. Crews says she has more energy and a completely different attitude about her body.

“But even today I am extremely obsessive about monitoring my blood sugar,” she said. “It’s a disease that doesn’t go away. You have to be aware of what you’re doing and eating every day to establish good health. That battle’s not over for me. It will always be with me.”

Crews says that a major impediment to people taking a proactive approach to diabetes is the belief that a healthy lifestyle is unaffordable. Good food is only available at high-end grocery stores or co-ops, and you have to pay for a gym membership to get exercise, goes this way of thinking. But Crews likes to point out that walking is free, and that she has been able to shop on a budget by frequenting farmers’ markets and cooking at home rather than eating out.

“I do it on a budget, and lucky for me there is the farmers’ market down on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. On average I spend $20 to $25 a week on produce at the farmers’ market,” she said. “During the winter I shop for produce at a combination of different stores, depending on who has the best deals that week.”

She recommends that even if you can’t start eating healthy food right away, at least get rid of the bad stuff—the greasy, high-fat fast food.

Crews’ budget became even tighter when she was laid off last year, making the produce she could raise at Hope Community Garden an even more valuable commodity. With the help of Williams, she learned how to plant seeds and transplants, care for them and harvest them at their peak of freshness and nutrition. She raised basil, tomatoes, mint, jalapenos, cucumbers, thyme, parsley and collard greens. She worked in the garden one or two times a week, often tying it in with her regular walks through the neighborhood. She found that working the garden not only produced healthy food, but was good for her mind as well.

“When I got laid off I thought my world was coming to an end,” said Crews. “The garden kept my mind off being laid off.”

It also gave her the bug for growing food. This spring Crews attended gardening classes put on by LSP and the Minnesota State Horticultural Society, and she is already planning this year’s harvest.

“I’m definitely taking pictures this year to track all the changes,” she told me as she headed out into the sunny street. “Taking the seeds, germinating them and then planting them—it’s like watching life begin.”