For those in the community who live with food insecurity, it can be hard to navigate healthy eating. Paired with Type 2 diabetes and the dietary and physical requirements involved, the challenge becomes even more difficult.

Now, those in Santa Maria who deal with both food insecurity and Type 2 diabetes can get help from the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County. The agency initiated its Healthy Eating for Diabetes program in April, offering assistance to those who live in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara. 

Maria Rosalva Reyes was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes two years ago. When she began trying to treat her condition, she said she didn’t feel sufficiently capable or knowledgeable enough to change things with her diet, until she found the Healthy Eating with Diabetes program.

“Approximately 21 percent of households in the community that we serve have at least one member with diabetes,” said Tonja van Gorp, a community programs coordinator for Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, who specifically oversees the Healthy Eating for Diabetes program.

“There are several components that contribute to how healthy food can help with food insecurity and management of diabetes,” van Gorp said. “Knowing that the people we serve are food insecure, we realize that this must affect the possibilities they have for managing diabetes on the nutrition part.”

She added, “Nutrition plays a large role in diabetes management.”

Members of the community who have Type 2 diabetes are able to sign up for weekly classes for the duration of four weeks. The classes offer suggestions for diabetics who have hemoglobin A1C’s (a measurement of average blood sugar over the course of three months) that are above the normal level for healthy living.

Participants engage in the preparation and tasting of a new recipe every week that is aimed to align with not only healthy living but proper management of diabetes, according to van Gorp.

“In the past, the Foodbank focused mostly on giving out food,” said Foodbank CEO Erik Talkin. “We discovered over time that we not only have to give out food but also give skills to be independent, and what we call food literacy -- shopping, planning, storing and budgeting.”

Reyes said, through translation by van Gorp, that after engaging in the program, she learned about different types of foods that don’t spike her blood sugar, as well as the importance of portion size and how to read nutrition facts more carefully on product’s labels.

She said prior to the classes, she wouldn’t consider trying some of the healthy foods she got to cook and taste in the classes, because of food insecurity and general unawareness of the benefits.

“Foodbank is all about the health of community, and we can best address this by looking at specific people who have a specific health challenge,” Talkin said. “That’s where our future is going rather than throwing food out there and hoping people get healthy.”

During the two-and-a-half hour class, diabetics also learn about the impact that physical exercise can have on their diabetes self-management, and often take walking trips to the nearest grocery store to practice effective grocery shopping.

One benefit of the class, aside from learning to properly manage their diabetes, is that participants have the opportunity to pick up food boxes twice a month, packed with 16 to 17 items that promote a healthy lifestyle.

The boxes, which they pick up from a Foodbank distribution center, contain food items low in sodium with no added sugar -- whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and various types of nuts and seeds.

“These food boxes are necessary to promote and encourage self-management of diabetes,” van Gorp said.

Reyes explained that the food boxes have helped support maintenance of her health because she’s able to try new products that are not harmful to her condition. Her family relies primarily on the bimonthly food box the Foodbank provides and regular support from her neighbors who give them salads and fresh produce.

Part of the Healthy Eating for Diabetes program also involves social support in the form of gatherings offered every three months, which van Gorp said plays a big role in keeping up the morale of those affected by diabetes and food insecurity. Another component is ensuring that participants have adequate medical support by encouraging them to continue regular doctor visits and inviting the medical community to be actively involved in their program.

The Healthy Eating with Diabetes program is free for participants who meet certain low income and food insecurity requirements throughout Santa Barbara County.

Reyes expressed that through the support of the Foodbank, her family feels less food insecure and more capable to make healthy choices for their lives than ever.

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Krista Chandler covers education in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast News. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @KristasBeat.