Standing in her kitchen, Therese Richardson is making her favorite recipe. “The honey dijon roasted pork tenderloin. I like that one,” the 50-year-old Indianapolis woman says.
Richardson has Type 2 diabetes, meaning that cells in her body are resistant to insulin, causing her blood sugar levels to rise. Eating vegetables and other healthy food helps her avoid serious complications — and lowers blood sugar levels.
“I didn't like broccoli, but I had to have the cheese on it,” she says. “But if you cook it the right way with different recipes, I can eat it without the cheese on it.”
Still, eating well is hard because Richardson works in the Emergency Department at Indiana University Hospitals. Late night shifts and a stressful work environment have led her to opt for junk food and unhealthy snacks.
Now she sets small goals. This week, it’s cutting down on sugary drinks.
“Since I like pop so much, I can cut down on how many I have and work my way to having diet pop,” she says. “But so far I've mixed them. So when I mix it, I put more diet in it than I do regular.”
For others with diabetes, getting healthy food is a challenge for different reasons. Some can’t afford it; others can’t access it.
“There are over 720,000 individuals in the state of Indiana that live in food deserts,” says Unai Miguel Andres, a research analyst at the POLIS center.
He says Black Americans are more likely to live in a food desert. “So those are people that live farther than one mile or 10 miles from the grocery store, depending on whether they live in an urban area or a rural area.”
One big reason for these food deserts: Store owners locate where they can make the most money.
“We live in a capitalist society where things are driven by the market, which is fantastic for economic outputs, but not so great for human needs,” Andres says.
Missing out on healthy food can have a big impact — especially in the Black community.
The federal government says Black Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes. And they’re much more likely to suffer from diabetes-related lower limb amputations and end-stage kidney failure.
Health professionals are working to address that, but making progress is hard.
“So before we had treatments for diabetes, including before we had insulin, the entire treatment was related to the diet,” says Dr. Tamara Hannon, director of the clinical diabetes program at Riley Hospital for Children.
Clinic patients are asked if they have access to healthy food. But doctors can’t solve such a big problem — and that’s demoralizing.
Hannon notes that food is important in preventing and controlling diabetes. “When someone comes to talk to me about how they can improve their diet, improve their diabetes control … but they have limited access to healthy foods, then it's very much a non-starter.”
One potential solution is taking shape in downtown Indianapolis, where cardboard boxes are being loaded into a van.
It’s part of a new program called Fresh Food to You from Indiana University Health. It provides healthy food to diabetes patients who can’t get it otherwise.
“They would start to receive a fresh food box weekly, which would include about 40 meals once cooked,” says Jennifer Bradley, a registered dietician who manages the program. “So the intention with this is that we're not only providing for the patient, but also for any family members that might live with the patient.
“Along with the fresh food boxes, they’re also having access to medical nutrition therapy sessions, which are taught by our diabetes educators. And those are being done virtually.”
Richardson is already seeing the effects in measuring her blood sugar levels.
“So I have some good news that this part,” she says. Results from her hemoglobin A1C test, used to measure blood sugar, dropped from 9.3% to 6.6%.
That’s good news. It means she taking charge of her health and could even control her Type 2 diabetes if she keeps it up.
This reporting is supported by the GBH Educational Foundation through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.