South Side Diabetes Project Changing Nutritional Norms

South Side Diabetes Project Grocery Store Tour
Facilitator Mary Lucy demonstrates the nutritional value of cucumber peels.

By Anna Boisseau

Passersby at an Auburn Gresham Save-a-Lot sport a mixture of confusion and annoyance as they squeeze past the small gathering of 10, who are listening to Mary Lucy, a dietetic technician, speak about the appropriate daily portion size for servings of fruit.

“Bananas have a lot of sugar, right?” asks Gregory Thompson, one of the participants huddled near the orange selection.

“Yes, and that’s why you can only eat half a banana,” Lucy responds, flipping through her colorful measuring cups meant to demonstrate the healthy amount of carbs.

The shoppers are here for a grocery store tour by the South Side Diabetes Project. Founded by Dr. Monica Peek and Dr. Marshall Chin of the University of Chicago, one way the project combats the high rate of diabetes on Chicago’s South Side is through community outreach programs like this one. They have formed relationships with businesses that don’t typically partner with medical organizations, like Walgreens and Save-a-Lot.

“A lot of our work is stuff that doesn’t even sound like I should be doing it,” said Peek of the non-medical programming that the South Side Diabetes Project sponsors.

“People spend a relatively small part of the time in contact with the healthcare system,” Chin said. “The other 99.9 percent of time they are living at home.”

According to the Chicago Health Atlas, many of the communities on the South Side have diabetes rates of over 12 percent. This is much higher than in affluent North Side neighborhoods, where the rate is generally less than 5 percent.

As one of the biggest predictors of diabetes is obesity, Dr. Peek said their program is hoping to confront cultural norms around diet. “Eating in an unhealthy is way more prevalent in certain communities,” she said. “The biggest predictor of someone’s health is where they live, more so than where they go for health care.”

Participant of South Side Diabetes Tour
“I was up here one day picking up some stuff and I noticed people standing around and asked what it was,” said participant Elizabeth Jones of the grocery store tours at Save-a-Lot. She has attended the classes for the past year and a half. (Anna Boisseau/MEDILL)

“We’re trying to keep down diabetes and high blood pressure. It’s so prevalent in the black community,” said Lucy, who has been with the South Side Diabetes Project for the past year and a half. She rotates through the program’s different grocery stores teaching participants about healthy eating habits. Participants are given before and after tests and leave the tours with 10-dollar gift cards to purchase healthier foods.

According to Lucy, when she first began giving tours last year, a lot of people would buy processed food items like boxes of mac-n-cheese or spaghettis. Now she sees much more fresh produce or frozen fruit and vegetables in participants’ carts.

Staff from the diabetes project take pictures of grocery store receipts to see if their classes are working. Many of the Save-a-Lot shoppers said they saw a dramatic shift in their lifestyle since they began attending the tours.

“I was up here one day picking up some stuff and I noticed people standing around and asked what it was,” said Elizabeth Jones. A big cook, Jones has attended the tour for the last year and half and has learned healthier options for her recipes like using ground turkey instead of ground beef.

“I was at 210 [pounds],” said Margaretha Ward, who has had diabetes for 11 years. “Since I got back in diabetes class at Save-a-Lot, I’m 160.”

Gregory Thompson said he suffers from the side effects of diabetes, including losing feeling in his feet. But since joining the tours, he has lost 60 pounds. Thompson spent Saturday’s tour asking Lucy specific questions about his diet and taking diligent notes after learning he should reduce the amount of eggs and juice he consumes. “It’s more than helpful. It’s saving people’s lives,” he said of the South Side Diabetes Project.

According to Chin, untreated diabetes leads to serious side effects like blindness, kidney failure, and nerve damage in the feet which can result in amputations. This is why it is important that diabetes patients learn how to change their diets, which is sometimes hard in South Side communities that don’t have access to grocery stores with healthy options.

“Fresh healthy food can be hard to find in low income neighborhoods in Chicago,” Chin said.

Participant at Save-a-Lot
Gregory Thompson takes notes on what he learned in today’s grocery store tour. He said he plans to reduce the amount of eggs in his diet. (Anna Boisseau/MEDILL)

Sheila Clay said she is generally satisfied with the options she finds at Save-a-Lot. As part of the grocery store tours, she’s been able to request new items like lentils and coconut oil. She said she learned about nutritional food through South Side Diabetes nutritionists.

“I was a salt eater and I was a margarine eater,” said Clay. Now she said shelooks for fresh produce options, adding she wishes Save-a-Lot would include more organic food.

The tour ends near the dessert section, where Lucy suggests shoppers purchase single-serving ice cream cups if they want a sweet treat. She also points out honey as a good alternative to chocolate syrup. One shopper picks up a honey container, notes the expensive price, and promptly puts it back. Even at cheaper grocery stores, not every healthy option proves cost effective.

Photo at top: Facilitator Mary Lucy demonstrates the nutritional value of cucumber peels. (Anna Boisseau/MEDILL)