Special Report: Diabetes on the Edge

Posted: Updated: Mar 02, 2016 11:47 PM

DONNA — The food people eat could leave them blind, cause kidney failure or even lead to an amputation. Fatty foods that are low in nutrition often lead to a disease that is an epidemic in the Rio Grande Valley: Type 2 diabetes.

For Luis Perez, waking up in the morning isn’t what it used to be.

“It's not easy; I can tell you that much,” Perez said.

Ten years ago, Perez was practicing his two-step. “I love dancing,” he said. That was before diabetes took his legs.

“It will make you cry at night,” he said. “You will not sleep."

The blood in Perez’s feet went stagnant after Type 2 diabetes set in. This forced him to make an important decision for life.

"I would rather have them cut it off,” he said. “It was just unbearable."

A bad diet is to blame for his double amputation. “The sweets are terrible,” Perez said.

Nutrition was never in Perez’s vocabulary. Now, he teaches children all over the Valley about diabetes.

“The only thing we can do is educate them,” he said.

Perez said he sees many children forming the same bad habits he did. He said those habits start in school.

Donna ISD Assistant Superintendent Fernando Castillo showed CHANNEL 5 NEWS around the Donna North cafeteria. At first glance, the food appeared to be the perfect meal for young learners. A side salad, fresh fruit and bread were served to complement spaghetti and meatballs or beef fingers.

Follow that food past the kitchen and it ends up in the trash. Students are not eating their side salad, vegetables or fruit bowls. Instead, we found many empty chip bags.

"We are not going to force them to eat,” Castillo said. “We are just trying everything we can."

Donna ISD’s student body is on a 100 percent government-assisted free lunch program. In many cases, the lunch and breakfast provided by the district are the only meals some students will eat all day. This is a problem, because many students are picky eaters.

"Some of the concerns are portions we serve, but, then again, we have to adhere to what the servings are,” Castillo said.

In order to meet federal standards, Donna ISD must provide fresh fruit, dark vegetables, grains, meat and milk to their students. Meals must have fewer than 650 calories.

“We actually survey our students,” Castillo said. “We have climate survey. Basically, we call it a food show."

Donna ISD’s solution to picky eaters is to let the students choose what they want to eat. The district has a sophisticated survey computer program. It mathematically rates each meal with line graphs and pie charts.

Students choose options like Frito pies, pork carnitas, chicken fajitas and pepperoni pizza.

Student Valerie Lizcano has Type 1 diabetes. The 17-year-old was diagnosed four years ago. Now, she wears an insulin patch to keep her from going into diabetic shock.

“To be honest, I never ate health foods,” Lizcano said.

Lizcano must check her blood sugar on a regular basis. Her mom, Sylvia Lizcano, keeps a close eye on Valerie’s eating habits.

Silvia Lizcano said she doesn’t like the idea of allowing students to choose what they eat.

"It’s the parents that need to take on that responsibility,” she said. “Then, we need to pass that responsibility onto our children."

Dr. Monzer Yazji treats patients in the Valley. He said, “It’s unfortunate when I see a menu like that."

Yazji has been treating diabetes for 20 years. He spent his entire career trying to teach the Valley how to eat better. He said he also doesn’t like the idea of letting children choose their lunch.

"We tell them it’s okay, then he goes home and thinks it's okay because school serves it,” the doctor said.

Yazji said the Frito pie that children eat at school is not the same as the one sold at the gas station. In his eyes, the type of food on the school menu is sending a bad message to students.

"It’s full of the wrong food, junk food, high-density food,” he said.

Donna ISD’s food does meet federal nutrition standards, and there are no rules on what kind of food must be served.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS took a look at lunch menus from across the Valley and state. We found similar patterns. Crazy Doritos are served in Mission. Tamales are served in Brownsville. Corndogs are served in Fort Worth. And Barbacoa is served in the health conscious city of Austin.

Wealth and culture often dictate a child’s diet. The Valley has one of the highest poverty levels in the U.S. And the area also produces a large quantity of fruits and vegetables. However, a majority of people in the Valley are accustomed to eating fast food.

Fast food is a part of Valley culture. It can be found on just about every major street corner.

Diabetic patient Luis Perez said his disease is serious, and the Valley needs to be concerned about it.

"If people can see the evidence right here, it might scare them even more,” he said.

Once someone gets diabetes, there is no cure.

Getting tested is fast and free at many clinics in the Valley. At-risk children and young adults can make a complete turnaround with just a few weeks of healthy eating and regular exercise.

There are different types of diabetes. Some are hereditary, and others can be prevented.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS is taking a closer look at all aspects of the disease during the month of March. On March 28, we will kick off our Heart of the Valley project. Stay tuned throughout the month for more information.

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