By Talia Beechick
Hospitalization due to diabetes is on the rise on Chicago’s South and West sides, according to newly released data from the Chicago Public Health Department.
Altgeld Gardens and Hegewisch saw the highest increase, with only 20 hospitalizations due to diabetes in 2000, and 139 by 2011, according to the data, the most recent available. Other neighborhoods that had a substantial rise over that same period include Calumet Park, with a 47 percent increase, East Chicago, with a 34 percent increase, and neighborhoods in the 60629 zip code, including Chicago Lawn and Gage Park, which saw a 30 percent increase.
Certain neighborhoods, however, noticed a similarly dramatic decrease in diabetes hospitalization rates in the same period, such as Bucktown, Lakeview, and South Loop, where rates fell by 51.5 percent, 40 percent and 39.8 percent, respectively.
“Obesity is the driving force behind the Type 2 diabetes epidemic,” explained Dr. Stephen Persell, associate professor of internal medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “When someone goes to the hospital because of diabetes, they are usually given intravenous fluids to balance electrolyte levels and hydrate the body.”
Persell acknowledged that genetics do play a role in diabetes, with Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanics all at higher risk than others. On the other hand, he emphasized that exercise and a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables were essential to prevent diabetes.
“There are a lot of unhealthy foods prevalent in our food supply that are inexpensive,” Persell said. “By reducing the amount of highly processed carbohydrates and sugar in our diets, we could reduce diabetes rates.”
Top 10 zip codes with the highest increase in hospitalization due to diabetes
Access to healthy food can be challenging in food deserts that overlap with many of the neighborhoods where diabetes-related hospitalizations are on the rise. In 2011, Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group produced “The Chicago Food Desert Progress Report,” which revealed that over 300,000 Chicago residents lived in food deserts. These deserts were located primarily on Chicago’s south and west sides, where grocery stores are often twice as far from residents as fast food chains.
A prior report released by Mari Gallagher showed how distance to a grocery store has a direct impact on body mass index. As grocery store access decreases, obesity increases, as does the risk for Type 2 diabetes. Uncontrolled and unmonitored, diabetes can put individuals at higher risk for blindness, nerve damage, heart failure and limb amputation due to infection.
Persell mentioned that growing and buying local fresh foods would be key to helping overcome the Chicago diabetes and food desert problems.
“Local communities can show support for local grocers and people who are supplying healthy food in their communities by purchasing food from them,” he said. “Additionally, local governments can help make it advantageous for growers through financial or other incentives.”
Growing Power is doing just that. Headquartered in Milwaukee, Growing Power is an urban agriculture organization dedicated to providing locally grown, fresh and healthy alternatives to urban areas plagued by food deserts.
The group started partnering with the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Housing Authority in 2005 to establish seven farms throughout the city. Some grow and sell produce year-round to local residents. The farms are primarily operated by the group’s youth program, Youth Corps, which offers job-training and life skills to over 300 underprivileged teens in Chicago.
“We want to improve the youth’s food system literacy, so they understand their role in the community and the larger food system,” said Lauralyn Clawson, youth education coordinator at Growing Power. “We try to expose teams to every career path that would exist in the overall food movement.”
The youth teams, recruited from local schools and nonprofit groups, learn skills in farming, composting, food production, harvesting, and even marketing and food label design. During colder seasons, the teams participate in weekly culinary workshops, with hands-on exercises like measuring the sugar content in a typical sugar-sweetened beverage, or learning to cook a healthier version of a favorite meal.
“Many of the students are aware of diabetes, and know a friend or family member who has it,” Clawson said. “We try to help them incorporate more fresh fruits and veggies into their diet.”
According to Clawson, many of the areas where their farms operate, including Altgeld Gardens, do not have easy access to grocery stores and healthy food options. Food can be picked at the farms but mobile food trucks stop at different areas.
“We try to make it as affordable as possible,” she said, explaining they accept food stamps and coupons. “We demonstrate its value and the work the youth have put in to grow the produce as well.”
Some neighborhoods are already benefiting from greater awareness of diabetes rates and prevention. Humboldt Park gained national press coverage after the release of diabetes levels in 2004 from Sinai Urban Health Institute’s Improving Community Health Survey results. The survey found that rates of diabetes diagnoses and diabetes mortality were double the national average in Humboldt Park.
The west side of the neighborhood, between Pulaski Road and Kedzie Avenue, still saw a slight increase in its adjusted rate per 10,000 in the 11-year period. However, the rate on the east side, between Kedzie and Western Avenues, saw a nearly 38 percent decrease, from 41.7 in 2000 to 25.9 in 2011.
Magdalena Nava, director of the Greater Humboldt Park Community Diabetes Empowerment Center, strives to help improve health in the area by offering free cooking demos twice per month, as well as free physical fitness classes throughout the week.
“At the center, we focus on prevention,” Nava said. “Therefore, we educate individuals on portion control, alternative recipes and physical exercise. Zumba draws the most people, 30 or 40 at a time.”
Nava agreed that access to healthy food is vital to combat diabetes onset.
“There are not many grocery stores or restaurants that provide healthy alternatives,” particularly on the west end, she said of the Humboldt Park neighborhood. “I believe the community needs to be educated more on these issues.”
The Diabetes Empowerment Center hosts a Diabetes Awareness Month celebration each year, which offers locals free heart screenings, flu shots, and A1C testing to diagnose Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.
Once a diagnosis is confirmed, however, Dr. Persell emphasized that receiving adequate medical attention to control and monitor diabetes is critical to avoid worse health issues down the line.
“The long-term goal to reduce the risk for diabetes is to control obesity, increase physical activity and eat healthy,” he said. “But it is critically important to emphasize that when people have diabetes, they take advantage of health care to treat it.”