Food is medicine.
It also can wreck your health.
Mike Jimerson knows the reality of both.
A steady diet of processed foods and a fairly sedentary life took Jimerson onto a path that pushed his weight to 377 pounds by the time he was in his early 40s and into a health condition far too common on Seneca Nation of Indians territory: diabetes.
“Everybody around you is eating junk food – pizza, wings – and they’re trying to entice you to eat that kind of stuff,” he said.
Jimerson and other Senecas are among Native people who seem to have a genetic predisposition toward diabetes. That, combined with the modern American fast-food diet, has led to rates of the disease about twice that of others in Western New York and across the United States.
A police marshal in the office of Seneca Nation President Barry Snyder Sr., Jimerson is among leaders in a movement to get his people back onto their feet, into their agricultural roots and off their diabetes medications. As a result, a growing number of Senecas have changed their eating habits, have lost weight and are digging into a new “Food Is Our Medicine” project to further put a dent in diabetes numbers.
The effort began in 2005, when Snyder and other nation leaders created the nonprofit Seneca Diabetes Foundation, and it has picked up steam during the last two years:
• $23 million community centers on both the Cattaraugus territory in Irving and the Allegany territory in Salamanca have opened with a wide range of fitness and nutrition programs.
• Health centers on the two territories began working with D’Youville College and Women & Children’s Hospital on comprehensive diabetes treatment and prevention.
• The new food project is working this spring to plant community gardens with plants native to the area outside the two community centers on the Seneca Nation and at the Native American Community Services facility on Grant Street in Buffalo.
• A Seneca Weight Loss Challenge – fueled by more than $10,000 in prize money – created a buzz on the nation in January, when about 270 people entered the program and together lost more than a ton of weight in the first two weeks.
Jimerson was among the biggest losers. He’s dropped 80 pounds since last June, most of it during the first 12-week challenge. He’s also part of a second, similar challenge that ends in a few weeks.
“You get to a point where you put clothes on, and you realize you’re not even shopping in regular stores anymore,” said Jimerson, 43. “And I said to myself, ‘I deserve to be healthy once in my life. This is when I’m going to do it.’ ”
Plenty of support
Jimerson and others who aim to make the change are getting lots of help.
The Senecas have peeled their health bureaucracy from the tribal leadership and established a Seneca Health Commission. Dr. Anthony Billittier – the former Erie County health commissioner who marked his first anniversary this month as the dean of the School of Health Professions at D’Youville – is chairman.
He and other leaders of what might be called a “Back to the Land” movement among the Senecas have concluded that the health dangers to the nation’s people have changed since the simpler time of their grandparents, who grew and consumed much of their own food.
And they wonder how instructive what is happening on Seneca territory might be for everyone in Western New York.
“I think our Western approach to medicine and diabetes has focused on the doctor’s office, and that’s not the right place,” Billittier said. “… It’s not just about the pills. It’s about the holistic mind, body, spirit, which really screams loudly for the resurrection of traditional medicine in these cultures.”
The Seneca Diabetes Foundation has committed more than $2.6 million to prevention, wellness and treatment programs.
It has purchased two transport vans to be used by Seneca Nation of Indians Health Department for dialysis patients; funded pediatric and adult endocrinologists to treat the nation’s children and adults; funded a scholarship program for Senecas committed to a college education in the health fields; and looked to more intensively track diabetes numbers and courses of treatment among the Seneca people.
But the medical improvements just start to tell the story.
Inside the Seneca community centers, exercise rules. There are lacrosse arenas, swimming pools, basketball courts, fitness rooms and exercise floors. Wellness coordinators help residents create personal fitness programs and head the weight-loss challenges.
New raised-bed garden boxes and plowed fields sit outside the centers, ready for plantings in the coming days of crops that would have been much more familiar to their ancestors than they are to many Seneca children.
Help from the Amish
Ken Parker is leading the change in food thinking.
Parker, 50, a Seneca who lives in Hamburg and grew up in South Buffalo, is manager of the Food Is Our Medicine project.
He is a “nurseryman” and native plant expert who has shared his expertise with the Pueblos and Six Nations of the Grand River in Branford, Ont., and who for this growing season has turned his attention full-time to Western New York.
He’s enlisted help from some experienced neighbors – the Amish.
Local Amish farmers provided the wood for the 15 raised garden beds outside the Cattaraugus Community Center and provided a horse and plow to prepare a half-acre field nearby for the planting of white corn, a traditional native crop with a lower sugar content than yellow corn and once the basic ingredient of many Seneca foods.
The raised beds and another nearby half-acre field will soon give rise to several varieties of tomatoes, peppers, squash and herbs, the vast majority of them native plants, as well.
Seneca leaders, the nation’s health department and the Diabetes Foundation have joined in the effort, which Parker calls a “huge gardening initiative” designed to teach the Senecas traditional growing methods as a way to boost wellness by curbing obesity, the leading cause of diabetes.
“We’re sitting together and coordinating our efforts,” he said. “I think that’s the main difference. We’re trying to create a culture here that says, ‘This is how we do things from now on.’ ”
Food Is Our Medicine will take a three-pronged approach:
• “Elder circles” are meeting with Parker and others twice a month to design a program in which they pass along their knowledge of traditional foods to younger generations.
• Older Seneca children will learn to become “food mentors” to younger children.
• All of those children, as well as adults, will work on the community garden projects in the hope they will plant their own gardens at home.
A new farmers market started last week outside the Cattaraugus center and will continue from 2 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays into the fall.
Plant sales took place Saturday in all three community centers, including the one in Buffalo. Canning workshops are planned inside the centers this fall.
Meanwhile, non-native Norwegian maples are being replaced with native sugar maples at the centers, and other non-indigenous plants are being replaced on other Seneca government-owned properties.
“We’re seeing a lot of diabetes in our younger generations,” Parker said. “It’s due to our diets and the processed sugars. In our traditional diet, we didn’t use a lot of sugar. … There’s a lot of food plants that we’re just not using, and ultimately, our goal to attain food sovereignty is to create a Native American grocery shelf. We want to get our foods back into the grocery store.”
For Snyder, a longtime leader of the Senecas, the collective effort – and excitement – rings personally.
He has Type 2 diabetes, as do his three sons.
“Good eating and exercise is probably the best way to go,” he said, “and it’s working.”
Snyder only need look around his office and at public gatherings to know.
Jimerson, whose job is “to protect the big guy,” has gone down eight pants sizes and fallen under 300 pounds for the first time in many years.
He’s taking far less diabetes medicine and has wrung junk food largely out of his diet, replacing it with more fruits, vegetables, salads and other healthy foods.
He’s still losing weight, and he has his sights set on a weight-loss milestone.
“I feel 200 times better than I did last June,” he said. “I feel more awake, more flexible, more agile.
“I’m getting to where 100 pounds once seemed impossible, and now I’m close to my goal.”