Daniel Weintraub: Young poets get the message out on preventing diabetes

Dean Schillinger has spent much of his life fighting a losing battle against a preventable epidemic that has taken millions of American lives. Now, for the first time, he has hope.

The disease is Type 2 diabetes, an illness that is driven largely by bad diets and sedentary lifestyles and that has ravaged people in poverty and ethnic minorities in numbers far greater than the rest of the population.

Schillinger battled the disease as head of California’s Diabetes Prevention and Control program and founded the Center for Vulnerable Populations at UC San Francisco, where he is a professor and researcher.

He is also a student of language. He has watched and listened as the messages preached by health experts have failed to reach people overwhelmed by the stresses in their lives and the slick marketing of companies pushing processed foods and sugary beverages.

As a primary care doctor at San Francisco General Hospital, Schillinger noticed that his patients were doing worse than similar patients he had treated at the university clinics. A significant number of them also had trouble reading. That led to research focused on the connection.

“We found a strong link between literacy and health,” he said.

Later, at a fundraiser for Youth Speaks, a project that helps young people empower themselves, he heard a then-17-year-old Erica McMath Sheppard perform “Death Recipe” – a poem about her food and sugar addiction.

The performance moved Schillinger to arrange a state grant for Youth Speaks to turn that poem and two others into short videos.

“It took off from there,” he said. “It captured people’s interest and enthusiasm because the art is so very good. To see young people getting up and telling the truth in ways we have been conditioned to not talk about is a very powerful experience.”

This month Schillinger is being recognized by the James Irvine Foundation, which is giving him a $200,000 leadership award to expand the project and broaden its reach.

There are at least two audiences for the art. One is youths who can relate to a message about standing up to “the man” – in this case corporate America – by refusing to buy and eat the products that cause obesity and diabetes. The other audience is policymakers who for years saw Type 2 diabetes as a disease caused by bad behavior – without looking at the social conditions behind those behaviors.

“Growing up in a traumatic environment where violence is prevalent and drug abuse is commonplace changes the physiology of the child,” Schillinger says. “Those stress hormones and all that adrenaline floating around lead to diabetes in and of itself, and lead them to choose to do things that in the long run are not healthy but in the short run relieve their stress.”

Schillinger hopes that the message in the videos will begin to change the way young people relate to food. But he also believes that a national war on diabetes is necessary – a comprehensive project aimed at relieving the stress and trauma that afflict young lives.

“The immediate release that sugar provides for all of us is a real oasis for young kids exposed to stress on a chronic basis,” he says. “Unless we get to the stress that’s in children’s lives, we won’t really tackle the diabetes epidemic.”

Daniel Weintraub is editor of the California Health Report. He can contacted at