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Santa Rosa program helps Latinos battle diabetes, heart disease

In the past, sisters Nancy, 13, and Adamary Cruz Garcia, 8, usually pulled processed food from the freezer and popped it into the microwave to allay their after-school hunger until their mother got home from work at 3:30 p.m.

That was before Gricelda Garcia, 35, of Graton learned to read nutrition facts labels, leading her to conclude that a good deal of processed and frozen food is “garbage.”

“I tell them now, eat a piece of fruit until I come home and make dinner,” Garcia said, speaking in Spanish. “Sometimes what people eat is garbage, thinking it’s healthy food, but it’s more sugar and salt than anything else.”

Garcia learned that lesson while attending a family-based nutrition and weight-loss class called Tomando Pasos, taught in Spanish at the Northern California Center for Well-Being in Santa Rosa.

The class is part of the center’s larger strategy to combat diabetes and heart disease in the North Bay, and its growing focus on Latinos.

It’s a population at greater risk for developing Type 2 diabetes and related health conditions that can lead to heart disease or stroke, according to the American Diabetes Association.

In Sonoma County, nearly 11 percent of Latinos have Type 2 diabetes versus about 6 percent for the county’s white residents, according the 2014 Portrait of Sonoma County, a blue-ribbon report chronicling disparities in economic and social conditions.

Adamary and her family were referred by a physician to the Center for Well-Being’s Tomando Pasos class, which means “taking steps” in Spanish, because the girl was gaining too much weight. The program involves the entire family and seeks wide-ranging behavior changes that result in healthier eating, increased physical activity and less “screen time,” said Alena Wall, executive director of the Center for Well-Being.

“We’re seeing rising rates in childhood obesity because of the way we changed everything - more television, more processed food, less activity,” Wall said. “This is the first generation of schoolchildren who may not outlive their parents due to chronic disease.”

The center recently expanded its Spanish language diabetes prevention services with the addition of a Spanish-speaking “patient navigator,” who helps them complete the course named Diabetes y Su Salud, providing intensive outreach, vouchers for transportation and a food box of nutrient-rich foods to encourage healthy meal preparation.

“We’re looking at the demographic shift in our community and wanting to make sure services are accessible,” Wall said. “If you have Type 2 diabetes, you’re at the same risk of having a heart attack as someone who has had a heart attack before.”

Susan Garcia, a patient navigator and health promoter at the center, said the hardest part is getting people to the class because of work schedules or lack of transportation.

But many are motivated, she said. “It’s all a matter of them being ready for change.”

Some want to live longer by lowering their blood glucose levels and improving their health for the sake of their children and grandchildren. Others, she said, are trying to turn their health around before it’s too late.

“They come with an amputated foot or finger (from diabetes); for them it’s having someone there that will hold you accountable to make the changes,” Garcia said.

The center’s addition of a patient navigator was made possible through a grant from Partnership HealthPlan of California, the nonprofit health care organization that contracts with the state to administer Sonoma County’s Medi-Cal benefits through local medical providers.

Garcia, the Graton mother, said she could not have made such dramatic lifestyle and dietary changes in her family without the center’s help. At the center, Garcia and her family were encouraged and supported by other families.

Together, they established regular eating schedules, reduced the amount of fat and salt used to cook, increased portions of fruits and vegetables, replaced white rice with whole grains and eliminated sugary drinks.

“We got rid of soda, we got rid of juice and switched to plain water,” she said, adding that her youngest daughter has been losing weight.

“I decided to only buy fruits and vegetables and not buy processed foods,” she said. “What I learned is that it’s up to me what they eat.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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