Veteran Fights Diabetes
Graduate Student Works to Promote Healthy Lifestyle
About a year after Jose Gonzalez enlisted in the Air Force, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Though he followed a healthy diet and was the fastest runner in his squadron, he was labeled disabled and honorably discharged.
Since his diagnosis in 2006, the veteran has learned to live with his condition, wearing an insulin pump and constantly monitoring his blood glucose levels. While he must live with Type 1 diabetes, which cannot be prevented or cured, Gonzalez said the disease has led him to his life’s mission: helping others prevent Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of diabetes and most often caused by obesity and poor eating choices.
“Diabetes can lead to leg amputations, blindness, kidney failure, heart disease and other health problems,” said Gonzalez, a Cal State Fullerton environmental studies graduate student whose studies are being underwritten by a $20,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture scholarship. “It’s an epidemic in the Latino and other minority communities that have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”
His efforts to fight diabetes include taking part in several projects that aim to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables in underserved communities. He is one of 10 students participating in the Urban-Agriculture Community-Based Research Experience (U-ACRE) project, directed by Sara E. Johnson, associate professor of anthropology.
U-ACRE, which is funded by a USDA grant, pairs Gonzalez and nine undergraduates with faculty mentors who coach them on environmental and community research.
As part of U-ACRE, Gonzalez is working with Johnson in a waste-diversion program at Ladera Vista Junior High in Fullerton, where they are teaching students and their families about recycling food waste, which is fed to worms that release it as compost in the school’s garden.
The 26-year-old grad student and Johnson also are working on the urban garden program at Pathways of Hope, a transitional living center for the hungry and homeless in Fullerton. They teach residents about good nutrition and how to grow their own vegetables and make healthy choices.
In addition, Gonzalez volunteers at the Fullerton Arboretum, where he is learning about soil and how to best grow fruits and vegetables so that he can teach others. He has started his own garden at his Montebello home and tells everyone he meets about the healthy qualities of fresh fruits and vegetables.
A vegetarian, Gonzalez said he’s noticed that at community gardens in dense neighborhoods near busy highways, plants can get contaminated from fumes and dust delivered by passing vehicles. So, for his master’s thesis, he is working on a project aimed at blocking such air pollution.
“Usually, low-income communities are surrounded by heavy traffic areas, so I’m looking at hedge rows of trees and shrubs as a buffer from the air pollution,” he said. “It’s important for people to learn about a healthy diet to avoid diabetes and other health problems, and urban gardens help promote healthy eating habits.”
Driving his passion to spread the word about the benefits of healthy food choices is his own family.
Gonzalez, who earned a bachelor’s degree in conservation and research studies from UC Berkeley in 2011 and is the only one in his family with diabetes, said he grew up poor and his family didn’t realize the importance of incorporating fruits and vegetables into their meals.
“I think many low-income families are uneducated about the benefits of healthy diets,” he said. “That’s why I’m studying urban agriculture and environmental science. I’ve always had this idea in me that, as part of an underserved community, I wanted to do something to help, and this is my contribution.”
According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), diabetes affects 25.8 million people, or 8.3 percent of the U.S. population. Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90-95 percent of all diabetics in the country, and African Americans, Latinos, native Americans, some Asian Americans, native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are at a higher risk for type 2 diabetes and its complications, the ADA reports.
Gonzalez plans to graduate with his master’s degree in 2014 and pursue a doctorate in urban agriculture. He said he hopes to eventually make a career, working with and serving underserved communities as a researcher investigating social-environmental issues.
“Jose is working to integrate the scientific and technical aspects of urban agriculture with social, economic and health issues facing specific communities and society in general,” Johnson said. “He has shown a great deal of creativity, enthusiasm and dedication in conceptualizing his thesis project, as well as contributing to the U-ACRE program. I am very pleased to be able to contribute to his graduate education through the USDA grant.”
“I just want to be doing something that allows me to help make this world a better place,” Gonzalez said, adding that his family inspired him to strive to help those less fortunate through higher education and service. “Life has many obstacles, and dealing with Type 2 diabetes or other preventable condition should not be one of them.”