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Patrick Springer, Published August 18 2013

Farmer’s Market just one of the ways White Earth is fighting against diabetes, obesity

Mahnomen, Minn. - The Farmer’s Market just off Main Street here aims to be an oasis in a “food desert” covering much of the White Earth Indian Reservation.

The Ojibwe reservation, covering more than 1,000 square miles, has two or three grocery stores. In Mahnomen County, 35 percent of the population has low access to a store, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

White Earth’s more common convenience stores are stocked mostly with processed foods, often high in salt, fat and sugar – a recipe for diabetes, which afflicts 30 percent of the reservation’s residents, with 50 percent at risk, according to the tribe’s figures.

But every Thursday during the summer, from 3 to 6 p.m., growers and canners gather underneath the market’s picnic-shelter awning to sell fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as items like low- or no-sugar jellies.

“I come here when I have the money,” said Thelma Coleman, who lives 21 miles away in the village of Naytahwaush. “It’s the best place for fresh stuff.”

Her mother always had a garden when she was growing up, and processed foods were much less common than they are today.

“That was the only way we could get the vegetables we needed,” the 77-year-old great-great-grandmother said, recalling a time when gardens were common and many had more active lifestyles.

Now, living in an elderly housing complex, she isn’t able to garden. And, living on a fixed income with no car for mobility, it’s difficult for her to find and purchase healthy foods.

That makes controlling her diabetes difficult. She isn’t always able to follow the diet her doctor recommends, high in fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats.

Her table soon will have fresh corn and tomatoes, however, items she bought Thursday at the Farmer’s Market, established four years ago by the tribe’s diabetes project to provide access to healthy food.

Leslie Scott, who also lives in Naytahwaush and shops at the Farmer’s Market, said food prices are high at stores on the reservation. She said hamburger can cost $5 a pound.

“It adds up,” she said. For lower prices, her boyfriend drives to a dollar store in Fargo, 70 miles southwest of Mahnomen, and spends $80 at a time in the frozen foods section, Scott said.

Shopping locally, she added, would mean paying “at least two or three times higher than that.”

Her co-worker, Christie Haverkamp, bought a dozen ears of corn and some fat-free bread at the Farmer’s Market.

“It’s good for diabetes,” said Haverkamp, who lives in the community of White Earth, where there is no grocery store.

As for restaurants, “Basically it’s a grill and a deep fryer,” said LaRaye Anderson, the tribe’s health education program manager. “Not many healthy options.”

The Farmer’s Market is one of a variety of programs aimed at combating the epidemic of obesity and diabetes on the reservation, with a population of about 10,000, by making healthy options more convenient.

Fitness centers have been established in communities throughout the reservation, with the services of a fitness trainer in Mahnomen available at no charge for tribal members.

Judy Conklin is one of the regulars at the tribe’s Star Fitness Center in Mahnomen. The 64-year-old woman exercises to help control her diabetes, which requires four insulin shots daily and medication twice daily.

“It’s really hard to keep your blood sugar in control,” she said. “You have to be very disciplined.”

The tribe’s diabetes project also is promoting family and community gardens, with the tribe providing a tillage service.

“Gardens provide so much more than fruits and vegetables,” Anderson said. “Family time, fresh air, exercise – they’re just good in many ways.”

She estimates that 100 families took advantage of the tilling service, a new offering this year.

But progress is slow. Despite its efforts, the tribe has yet to bring down the diabetes rate, Anderson said.

American Indians are more than twice as likely to have diabetes. Death rates from diabetes are 1.6 times greater than the general population.

A food distribution warehouse dispenses government commodities and other foods for those who meet low-income guidelines.

The warehouse, on Highway 200 about 15 miles east of Mahnomen, is in the middle of the country.

The tribe’s bus service provides transportation to those who need it. Deliveries are made to homebound clients, and the tribe operates dining centers for elderly members in communities throughout the reservation.

The food provided by the program, with major funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has become much healthier in recent years, said Linda Londo, a supervisor at the warehouse center.

Offerings include fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, as well as fruit juice, canned goods and meat.

“It’s a supplement not intended to last all month,” Londo said, estimating that the program provides about half of an eligible family’s food needs.

“We have a lot of unemployed people,” she said, “but we also serve a lot of employed people who are income-eligible.”

Healthy recipes and food preparation tips also are dispensed at the center.

“I’ve always got loads of recipes,” said Colleen Blattenbauer, a nutrition educator who on Thursday was serving beef and dumpling soup and wheat crackers.

Meanwhile, White Earth will be getting its own kidney dialysis center with six chairs so patients won’t have to travel to Detroit Lakes or Bemidji.

Food stamps also provide important food assistance to many reservation residents. The program, targeted by Republicans in the U.S. House for sharp cuts, is part of the safety net for many White Earth families, Anderson said.

A recent survey on the reservation found that two-thirds of respondents were obese and almost a quarter were overweight.

“That’s not good,” Anderson said. “It’s daunting.”

But the battle will continue on multiple fronts in an effort to create healthy new habits. Plans call for an indoor farmers market that would open once a month at the tribal college, perhaps as early as this winter.

“I think we’re certainly creating awareness,” Anderson said. In time, she added, the numbers could improve.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522