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Registered dietitian Alida Peterson sometimes delivers news that throws a punch. As coordinator of the Diabetes Wellness Program of Sonoma Valley, she informs people they may have diabetes or are on the verge of developing the disease.

Tough to hear, it’s the first step toward managing the disease that is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s scary because it’s a silent disease. You don’t feel it,” Peterson said. “You don’t have the real consequences until it’s happening.”

With a $100,000 grant awarded a year ago by Impact100 Sonoma, the Redwood Empire Food Bank was able to expand its Diabetes Wellness Program in Sonoma Valley, screening some 500 low-income people who otherwise wouldn’t know they were at risk.

Left undiagnosed or untreated, diabetes can lead to damaging and even deadly impacts, including heart attacks, strokes, vision loss, kidney failure, nerve damage and foot amputations.

“A lot of people can have high blood sugar and not know it,” said Gail Atkins, director of programs with the Redwood Empire Food Bank. “A lot of people know they have diabetes, but they’ve ignored it. This is sort of a nudge to get them back into care.”

About 20 percent of the population tests positive for Type 2, or adult-onset, diabetes, she said.

The grant provided funding to bring the food bank’s mobile clinic to a food distribution site in Agua Caliente, in northern Sonoma Valley. T

here, working outside a van in a corner of the St. Leo’s Catholic Church parking lot, people are encouraged to sit for a quick screening that shows glucose levels.

Those with elevated blood sugar levels are enrolled into the food bank program that partners with the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center to provide appointments for follow-up care and treatment.

The program is free of charge, with participants receiving blood glucose meters and test strips for monitoring blood sugar levels, plus monthly boxes of healthy, diabetes-friendly foods with low carbohydrates, low sodium, low fats and whole grains.

The food giveaway also provides fresh fruits and vegetables for a balanced diet.

Educational materials are provided, and classes are offered to address various aspects of diabetes care and management. People are referred for services at the local health center.

Seven family members affected

The grant also funded a $15,000 retinal screening machine to test for retinopathy, a common complication of diabetes.

“We provide people with the steps to get into care,” Peterson said. “It helps to demystify diabetes and gives them a pathway to follow.”

Atkins said many people are in denial about their diabetes, a disease that forces the pancreas to work harder to produce insulin to control blood sugar levels.

“Lives are so stressful and chaotic, but people have serious situations that need attention,” she said.

Maria de Jesus Gonzalez, 62, is among those who have benefited from the program in Sonoma Valley. She volunteers with the food distribution at St. Leo’s and receives boxes of diabetic-friendly staple foods.

A Type 2 diabetic for more than 20 years, Gonzalez knows too well the impacts of the disease. Seven family members are diabetic, including both her parents, and a sister is in denial.

“She no wants to know,” said Gonzalez, a certified nursing assistant who moved to Sonoma from Mexico 38 years ago.

Gonzalez said people are grateful for the Diabetes Wellness Program of Sonoma Valley, particularly those with little access to health care.

“I feel so happy when people come to check,” she said. “It’s very good. Some people have no work or no Social Security. They tell me, ‘Oh my God, thank you.’ ”

Monthly nutrition classes

Peterson said it’s especially helpful for enrollees to attend the nutrition education classes offered monthly at the health center. Topics include portion control, how the body digests carbohydrates, food choices and ways to control and cope with diabetes.

“There’s always going to be pan dulce (Mexican pastry) and these foods around them. They can’t live in a vacuum or have feelings of guilt or self-sabotage,” Peterson said. “They can split (the pastry) with a friend and then go on a walk together.”

Peterson said it is especially rewarding when follow-ups and tracking confirm that the program’s mission is successful. Screenings, resources and education are helping people live healthier lives.

She recalls one young woman who tested in the prediabetic range and immediately sought help.

“She really took her diagnosis seriously,” Peterson said. “She had been going through some hard things in her life and was turning to food (for comfort).”

By making changes with food and exercise, the woman is improving her health and potentially preventing full-blown diabetes.

Peterson and Atkins say the Impact100 Sonoma funding was critical for the food bank and the underprivileged people it serves. They hope to receive additional funding from other resources but credit the members of Impact100 Sonoma with literally saving lives.

“It’s a very important program to bring to the valley,” Atkins said. “The Impact100 grant really allowed us to grow.”

For more information, visit refb.org or call 523-7900.