Diet of earlier
generation, combined with exercise, offers hope for better health
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,"
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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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
"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."