A Bay Area-based campaign is recruiting young poets and youth to raise their voices and start a culture shift to end the type 2 diabetes epidemic.
The Bigger Picture enlists young people to offer personal testimony about how soda and sugar consumption and unhealthy eating has cut deeply into their families — causing heart attacks, blindness and amputations. They write poems about the scarcity of healthy food in their neighborhoods, the poverty that limits their choices and how corporate food companies target them and profit from their poor health.
These poems are converted to videos for the web and school presentations to raise awareness and move communities to action.
“Ideally we’d love to change the culture the way the nation changed the culture around tobacco,” said James Kass, founder and executive director of Youth Speaks Inc., an organization providing young people platforms for writing and performing poetry. It has helped launch 70 programs nationwide and produces local and national youth poetry slams, festivals and reading series.
Youth Speaks and UCSF’s Center for Vulnerable Populations founded The Bigger Picture in 2012, hoping to use youth spoken word performances to start conversations and leadership among youth about the social and economic drivers of type 2 diabetes.
Fifty years ago the disease afflicted one in 100 Americans. That has climbed to one in 10. And a 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study warned that as many as one in three U.S. adults could have diabetes by 2050 if current trends continue.
The Bigger Picture holds workshops with young poets. Medical professionals give them the background and statistics about type 2 diabetes as well as information on how food companies prey on minority youth with marketing for soda and unhealthy food.
The campaign is modeled after the successful tobacco “truth” campaign, combatting youth smoking. And it aims to foster a culture shift carried by youth leaders.
Gabriel Cortez, a 25-year-old poet mentor fellow with Youth Speaks, goes into schools to teach poetry during English classes and to run poetry “Slam Clubs” at lunch and after school.
The Bigger Picture has made a video from Cortez’s poem “Perfect Soldiers.” It’s about his grandfather, a former U.S. Army soldier, and focuses on his Panamanian heritage and how food companies and the military target communities like his.
“Dr. Pepper lines our refrigerator door like a vest of dynamite….It is how you learn to drink growing up in a country where soda is cheaper than clean water…It isn’t a coincidence that the military and the beverage companies call us their target audience…The threat of diabetes is as common in our family as hard work, obedience and discipline. We march until they cut the legs out from under us. Ain’t we perfect soldiers?”
Dean Schillinger, a primary care physician at San Francisco General Hospital and founder and executive director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations, says the project’s school assemblies follow the readings with a video public service announcement, such as one about a foot amputation.
“It’s a game changer,” Schillinger said. “Suddenly the kids are glued, suddenly they care.”
To date The Bigger Picture has reached more than 5,000 high school students, educated 50 youth poet mentors and produced 23 video PSAs.
The campaign is preparing to spread statewide by building groups of peer educators and poet mentors to go into schools and community organizations to engage young people in the campaign to combat the rise of type 2 diabetes.
There are many ways youth can have an impact, said Sarah Fine, the campaign’s director. They can go shopping with their families, read labels, and boycott companies that market unhealthy food. They can support policies in schools to reduce sugar and soda and sign petitions for working drinking fountains and clean and safe parks.
The stakes are high. In the 1990s Schillinger remembers half of his hospital beds filled with AIDS patients. Now more than half have diabetes, he said. And minority children have much higher rates of type 2 diabetes than non-Hispanic white children.
“It’s a complete change of epidemics,” he said. “We were able to get a handle on AIDS in the last 25 years but now there’s this new epidemic in its wake and it’s so different in terms of how we’re responding.”
Discussions of type 2 diabetes have traditionally centered around shaming and blaming young people and telling them it’s their fault, Fine said.
“How many young people do you know who like to be told what to do? You’ll take a much stronger stand against a company that is trying to play you,” she said.
Ivori Holson, a poet mentor, grew up in Richmond, parts of which the USDA in 2011 classified as a food desert, an urban city where many residents don’t have ready access to fresh, affordable, healthy food. She remembers only one grocery store and many liquor stores in Richmond growing up.
Holson wrote “Thin Line,” based loosely on people in her own life. A young woman with type 2 diabetes is getting her feet amputated. She and her seven-year old daughter, who also has the disease, are addicted to soda.
“Her mind won’t let her wander from this moment, this second, this flicker of lights this hushed whisper, the last moment she’ll have with her feet,” wrote Holson.
The effort is attracting national attention. The Bigger Picture gave a presentation to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Soda Summit and the James Beard Foundation and is pulling in numerous awards.
Now The Bigger Picture is a key partner with The Open Truth campaign to increase awareness about the health risks that sugary drinks cause and the tactics corporations use to target communities of color. Open Truth is a collaboration among several Bay Area health departments, the American Heart Association and academic and community groups.
But TBP doesn’t have a hefty revenue source like that of the anti-tobacco campaign, funded heavily by court settlements and cigarette taxes.
“Coke is not yet paying for an anti-Coke campaigns,” Kass said.