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Nanny State or Faith-based? Harlem pastor has a better way to solve NYC’s diabetes crisis

Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed 10 days ago to unleash the Nanny State on coke drinkers to solve the problems of obesity and diabetes in NYC. Reverend Michel Faulkner of New Horizon Church in Harlem advises the mayor that the changing of lifestyles requires more than a Nanny State.

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Pastor and former congressional candidate Michel Faulkner preaches a faith-strategy to prevent diabetes. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed ten days ago to unleash the Nanny State on coke drinkers to solve the problems of obesity and diabetes in New York City. Some religious leaders endorsed the mayor’s efforts. Seventh Day Adventist pastor Brian Carter of Brooklyn said, “Adults in the city’s poorest neighborhoods suffer from obesity and diabetes at twice the rate of the wealthiest New Yorkers, and bear the disproportionate burden of diabetes-related hospitalizations and deaths.” The New York health department estimates that 1.1 million people living in the state have diabetes, and there is not yet a cure.

Diabetes is a condition in which a person is unable to produce enough insulin to process sugar for the body. The United Sates Center for Disease Control attributes the rapid increase in diabetes to unhealthy lifestyles. So, a key to battling this disease is awareness and change of one’s habits.

Skeptics point out that there is little proof that laws against food consumption work without a change of heart about one’s life style. There are many alternative ways to dollop on the calories. Last Monday the NY Daily News delightfully pointed out that “Mayor Mike” was eating a BLT sandwich heavily dosed with mayonnaise, the equivalent of about 5 12-ounze soft drinks. Bloomberg protested that he usually eats with restraint.

Reverend Michel Faulkner of New Horizon Church in Harlem advises the mayor that the changing of lifestyles requires more than a Nanny State.

He says that changing motivations is best done by a combination of community coaching, tactics of restraint and the mobilization of one’s deepest values. “I would say the mayor’s heart is in the right place,” the pastor affirms. “Clearly, we should all be looking at ways we can eliminate sugary drinks from our diets while exercising more. [But] when you talk about regulating or taking away something we as Americans all love such as soda or sweet drinks, then you are ultimately fighting a losing battle.”

Since 2009, the pastor’s Institute for Leadership (IFL) has been trying out a six week program “Defy Diabetes” as a faith-based jump start to changing lifestyles for diabetes prevention. The pastor says, “I think the IFL approach to diet and exercise is a more effective model because it involves reshaping existing routines and habits to positive behavior that will change your life.”

With the help of a five-year grant from the New York State Health Foundation, the institute is spending about a million dollars a year to build a network of healthy life style tune-up change stations among faith communities.

Mahbooba Kabita, a Muslim intern at the institute, says that she realizes that faith-based community programs provide more than just basic health education. “This is very needed,” she says. “We need education, family, and peer support to make behavioral changes. All these factors have to work together.”

The institute’s homepage flashes alternately that the lifesavers from diabetes can be “My Pastor”, “My Guru,” “My Priest,” My Rabbi,” and “My Imam.”

The 5-person team of IFL works with churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques to organize workshops on portion control, dietary habits, and exercise needs. Their program has been implemented at over 110 religious sites with 2,200 participants across New York State. The institute particularly focuses on faith-based organizations to get the word out to poor minority communities

In areas such as Harlem and the south Bronx, the Department of Health reported in 2006 that residents were hospitalized for diabetes 10 times more than those living in the mostly white, well-off Upper East Side. According to the New York Department of Health, diabetes is the third leading cause of death in African Americans and the fifth leading cause of death among Hispanics. Because African Americans, Hispanics and Asians are more likely to be afflicted with diabetes because of a genetic predisposition, healthy life styles are immensely important for them.

Nutritionist from United Sikhs in Queens. Photo: IFL.

Yet, because many of the people most susceptible to diabetes in these neighborhoods are poor, it is no easy feat to rally them to devote time to preventing theoretical health problems in the future when they are focused upon economic survival. Previous attempts to bring health experts to give one time seminars don’t make much impact. The institute’s  Executive Director and co-founder Franco Olmeda believes previous health initiatives in low-income areas did not stick is because the educators didn’t have deep and continuous relations to the communities.  “The folks in the clinical community, there's no sustainability in their programs. They come in and do a class and then they leave,” he cautions. Olmeda calls them ‘hit and runs’- organizations and programs with good intentions but no follow-up.

What separates the Faith Fights Diabetes initiative is that it starts in the churches, synagogues, mosques and temples which are relative stable fixtures in the community. Although IFL is not a faith-based organization, it doesn’t take a secularized approach of discounting the resources of religious motivations and social networks for the fight for better health.

“We're not into ecumenicalism,” says Olmeda, meaning that “We go to churches because they are part of the community. We target ethnic groups using faith as a vehicle.”

The institute seeks religious congregants with “passion for health and the skill of teaching.” They are given training about the basics of diabetes, a plan of action to network fellow congregants into workshops, educational resources, and a thousand dollar grant. These lay educators then implement the ‘Defy Diabetes’ program among fellow  congregates at high risk for diabetes.

Priscilla Acevedo demonstrates diabetes prevention made easy. Photo: IFL

Jose Sanchez, an IFL associate who has connected to the program from its beginning, found educating people through their faith communities about things like portion control to be invaluable. Faith and education both give a sense of control over one’s destiny. “My father died from diabetes. He didn't have that information,” Sanchez says. “Diabetes is not an acceptable disease. I take control.”

Participants meet once a week for six weeks to learn about detection, prevention and management of diabetes. They receive a water bottle, measuring cups to help with portion control, a pedometer, an exercise stretch band, a food journal and an instructional DVD about diabetes in both English and Spanish.

Something as simple as an everyday kitchen item — the measuring cups — can really turn one's health around with a little bit of coaching. Sanchez asked a room full of participants how much rice they eat in a serving. Most admitted that they unknowingly consume four times the recommended serving size, which is just one cup.

Demonstrating the healthy plate of food at Community Baptist Church, South Ozone Park, Queens. Photo: IFL

Once the six-week program is finished, the institute encourages the participants to create support groups to keep one another accountable to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

The institute has stumbled upon an advantage of peer education over highly educated public health educators: it not what you teach or how you teach it, but who the teacher is. Peer education works well because the students know, trust and relate to the teachers more easily.

As Olmeda puts it, “We're building up trust in the community. Reason being, at this stage, it's more about mission in the faith base.”


For more information, the Institute for Leadership's website is

The NY State Diabetes Campaign is

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