STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, along with those questions Gene mentioned, about finances and the American Dream, our joint poll on Latino Americans also asked about health. We're told that Latinos can be genetically predisposed to diabetes. Environment and diet can increase that risk. NPR's Patty Neighmond went to Boyle Heights in east Los Angeles, a neighborhood dominated by Mexican-Americans.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Rebecca Martinez-Rocha says she's 100 percent East L.A.
REBECCA MARTINEZ-ROCHA: I was born there, raised there, and still live there.
NEIGHMOND: And like many of her friends and family members, Martinez-Rocha struggles with her weight. At one point she was extremely obese.
MARTINEZ-ROCHA: I was well over 320 pounds. I don't think I realized it at the time, whether it was denial or I just stopped getting on the scale. I was morbidly obese.
NEIGHMOND: And, as it turns out, she was prediabetic, a diagnosis she received at the local health clinic.
MARTINEZ-ROCHA: I wasn't aware of the fact that I was ill. I figured since I was relatively young - I was in my late 20s, early 30s - and it was kind of one of those a-ha moments in life where you look at it and you put it all together and you think how did I get here?
NEIGHMOND: Her doctor, Anne Peters, is a diabetes specialist who also heads a diabetes research program at the University of Southern California.
DR. ANNE PETERS: Type two diabetes is the plague of this Latino community. Individuals here are getting diabetes at rates we've not seen before.
NEIGHMOND: Rates of about one in 10 people.
PETERS: I have seen more suffering from diabetes; from blindness, from kidney failure, from heart disease, from amputations. Untreated, diabetes is awful.
NEIGHMOND: Peters says if nothing changes, the rate of diabetes could rise over the coming decades to one-in-four. Peters told Martinez-Rocha she was on her way to becoming an insulin-dependent diabetic. Martinez-Rocha got really scared and made major changes. She lost 160 pounds. But many patients don't do that, in large part because pre-diabetes is silent. And if they don't go to a doctor and get their blood sugar measured they'll never know, which is a shame, says Peters, because pre-diabetes can be turned around.
PETERS: If somebody has pre-diabetes, they need to lose weight and they don't need to lose a lot of weight. It may only be 10 to 15, 20 pounds. It doesn't mean they have to become skinny.
NEIGHMOND: But weight is key, says Peters. Studies show that just moderate weight loss can reduce diabetes risk by half. Now, losing weight is hard for everyone. But Martinez-Rocha says it's even harder when you live in a neighborhood that offers lots of high-fat, high-sugar food.
MARTINEZ-ROCHA: Drive around my neighborhood, every corner you'll see a taco stand, a fast-food restaurant, a panaria(ph) which is, you know, sweet-bread store. You'll see a place that sells tamales. You'll see a place that sells some sort of other desert or fried food.
NEIGHMOND: In our poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health, we found that one-in-five Mexican-Americans say they have poor to fair access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Alex Ortega is a professor of public health at UCLA. He calls neighborhoods like this food swaps, where corner markets typically don't offer healthy food.
ALEX ORTEGA: They'll sell lottery tickets, liquor, cigarettes. They might sell some fruits and vegetables, but they're typically in the back of the store and they tend to be of very poor quality.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Spanish spoken)
NEIGHMOND: About a month ago at the Euclid Market in East L.A., storeowner Maria Avila worked with Ortega and local high school students to transform store. They added windows, a new paint job and, most importantly, healthy food. Now, when you walk in, the first things you see are fresh fruits and vegetables.
ORTEGA: Fresh tomatoes, you see some squash, you see avocados, you see apples, you know, a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that were not here couple of months ago.
NEIGHMOND: This is the fourth corner store in the area to be converted. It's part of a special project at UCLA. Ortega says storeowners tell him they have more customers. They're selling more fruits and vegetables and they're making more money - all around good news. But the big question, of course, is: Will it make a difference in the health of the neighborhood and the epidemic of diabetes.
Nineteen-year-old college freshman DeeDee Barba has been part of the store conversion project for two years. She's also learned about nutrition.
DEEDEE BARBA: We've always liked salads though. Like, that's actually been a big thing in our family - we do like salads a lot. But, you know, we would always eat them with dressing. And that's like, you know, when we started finding out, like, it's not so good with dressing and stuff. So we usually are salads with like, olive oil and lemon now. That's actually really good.
NEIGHMOND: For 17-year-old high school senior Steven Cardona, the family diet has changed dramatically.
STEVEN CARDONA: Before we would, you know, go to like Jack in the Box or something. You know, eats dinner with whatever. But the other day, we had some steamed vegetables, rice and a piece of chicken on the side. And, you know, little things like that, you know.
NEIGHMOND: Researcher Alex Ortega says the hope is the availability of healthy food in low-income neighborhoods like this will make a difference in rates of obesity and diabetes in the Latino community.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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