IAIA Works To Curb Diet Related Health Problems

By Byron Aspaas

Santa Fe, NM ”“ Abra Ann Nungasak Stolte-Patkotak is of mixed heritage””Inupiaq and white.   She is an Indigneous Liberal Studies major at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), and since arriving at school, Stolte-Patkotak has struggled with health issues. “Everyone thought I was so mean and angry the first semester I came to IAIA,” she laughs. “I was so thin and tired.” With constant visits to the hospital the doctors have failed to find a cause, and Stolte-Patkotak became frustrated as her health dwindled. “Not even the doctors knew what was wrong with me.”

During a trip home to visit her diabetic grandfather from the Czech Republic, Stolte-Patkotak, used her grandfather’s blood sugar machine out of curiosity. It gave her a shock. “My sugar level was over 600,” she recalls. With that revelation, Stolte-Patkotak went to the hospital and found out she had type-one diabetes. “I guess I self-diagnosed myself.”

After learning about her condition, Stolte-Patkotak began searching for new diets to lower her blood sugar and slowly began to weed out foods such as gluten, wheat, and other grain products that are genetically foreign to an indigenous diet and her health.   By looking more carefully towards her consumption, and taking note of foreign foods, her health began to stabilize and she suddenly realized the importance of food and nutrition. “Food should be our medicine,” she smiles. “Natives had no wheat in their diets until the early 1900s. We forget to look at food when health issues arise.”

Stolte-Patkotak enrolled into an Indigenous Foods course that was introduced to IAIA, spring 2012, along with Muskogee-Creek Tribal Member George Alexander. Alexander also suffers from health issues: high-blood pressure and hypoglycemia. Both Alexander’s parents passed away when he was 14 from similar health problems.   “Two years ago we went to Oklahoma City to play stickball,” says Alexander. “We stopped for pizza and I ate four slices. The left part of my face went numb.”

At a young age, Alexander struggled with his weight which he thinks was caused by government provided food products, such as: commodity meats, flour, and cheeses. Since learning about his high-blood pressure, George has learned to balance his diet. “I used to weigh 230 pounds,” he says. “It slowly came down. Pretty fast, actually.” He currently leads an active lifestyle and works out 2-3 hours daily and continues to provide training for his peers who ask.

Predominantly, the Institute of American Indian Arts’ student population is 83% Native American. With soaring rates of health issues amongst the student population, IAIA is taking a stance on food knowledge. Lois Frank, instructor of Indigenous Foods at IAIA says to start, Indigenous people need to examine the food prymid. “The US Government created the food pyramid. The government’s pyramid suggests an ideal person’s diet intake,” she says. “The food pyramid is wrong.”

As a class, Lois’ students deconstructed their own personal food pyramids according to the regions of North America where their ancestry began. Lois, a mixed heritage Native American from the north-eastern America, mentions that historically her people particularly ate fruits, nuts, bison, and other plants as opposed to what the government suggests daily. She compares her diet to people of Alaskan descent where the primary foods are whale and other meat sources which don’t include corn, grain, and other groups that aren’t a part of their dietary history.

According to the American Indian Health and Diet Project of Kansas University “One of the more obvious manifestations of colonization is the extreme change in health conditions (Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc.) of Natives brought on by regressing from a diet of vegetables, fruits, game meats, and active hunting/gathering cultivating lifestyle to a daily routine consuming a diet of processed, fatty, salted diet and sitting still. We can see that everyday around us in our communities and sadly, in our own homes.” In recent studies according to U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “American Indian/Alaska Native adults are over twice as likely as white adults to be diagnosed with diabetes.”

Bon Appétit is a concept that was created in 1987 by two people in San Francisco, who demonstrated healthy food choices for students in college by experiencing healthier diets. Due to many dietary restrictions that some students experience, Bon Appétit has accommodated their menu each week to allow each student to enjoy varieties of food. Since the Institute of American Indian Arts introduced Bon Appétit to their students, the fight towards health issues begins with the intake of food.

Through Bon Appétit, Alexander has helped stabilize his diet. He praises Bon Appétit for helping him avoid high-sodium products such as ham. “When they have food like ham, they will prepare me chicken instead. They go out of their way to help with my blood pressure.”

Guido Lambelet is the Executive Chef/General Manager for IAIA’s Bon Appétit. He has been employed with the company since the birth of the concept. “Our vegetables are organic,” he says. “When it’s in season, we use the school’s own greens from the greenhouse. Students are more aware of what affects them. It’s more recognized. It gives them more energy.” Guido says gluten intolerance is important within the Native community, and the history of flour diets introduced to their culture. “You see generations of fast foods grow as your body changes,” he states. “Bon Appétit does as much as they can with special needs. Vegan, dairy tolerant, gluten-free, Native Americans, or whoever they are””we try to make sure they are taken care of.” According to Lois Frank, IAIA’s Indigenous Foods Instructor, Bon Appétit has done a wonderful job creating menus for IAIA students. “Guido and Melanie Lambelet are doing an amazing job with the cafeteria. They have an amazing salad bar and help students with their dietary restrictions.”

Both George Alexander and Abra Ann Nungasak Stolte-Patkotak continue to live their lives. Stolte-Patkotak is currently living in Alaska where she hopes to be around her people and reconnect: “I want to work in health and nutrition. I want to be a diabetes educator and connect with the people by getting better, myself.” Alexander continues to inspire those peers around him: “I don’t want to go out like my parents did. I want to live life to the fullest.”

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