We interviewed Greg Garrett, Chief Operating Officer of the Native American Health Center, to learn more about how his organization supports ALL IN Alameda County’s Recipe4Health (R4H) model. R4H provides Native American Health Center members with healthy food grown at Dig Deep Farms and group medical visits to prevent, treat, and reverse nutrition-related diseases, food insecurity, and social isolation.
Greg is also a volunteer member of DSAL’s Board of Directors and one of our Systems Innovators – a designation we give to partners who go above and beyond to implement the Community Capitals Policing model and improve the health, safety, and quality of life for residents.
The following is an edited version of our interview with Greg.
DSAL: Greg, what makes the Native American Health Center special?
GREG: You've picked a wonderful time to ask that question. We are celebrating our 50th anniversary this year!
Native American Health Center was founded 50 years ago and has been led for the last 40 years by our esteemed CEO, Martin Waukazoo. NAHC was created to emphasize the importance of Native Americans taking back ownership of the land and property taken from them during the colonization of their territories while also providing needed services to the Native American community. NAHC is a health center that offers medical, dental, and behavioral health services; we also have a Community Wellness Department that provides workforce development, job training, trauma-recovery, and youth development programs. The Community Wellness Department also serves as a cultural center that offers Native programming to instill pride and preserve the culture of the Native American community.
The founders, led by Mr. Waukazoo, knew it was critically important that Native Americans preserve their culture, traditions, and practices and not allow the government to succeed in the cultural assimilation of Native Americans into Western culture. Native American Health Center really started as a place for the Native American community to retake ownership of their stolen land and culture and to hold on to values that would have been eradicated through cultural genocide by the United States Government. Over time, the center has evolved into a broader, community-serving organization, but we are still dedicated to maintaining Native American and indigenous cultures and traditions and to infuse Native cultural and spiritual healing practices into our programs.
DSAL: What are some of the challenges that you confronted at NAHC during the pandemic?
GREG: Like everyone else, health centers suddenly had to learn how to work virtually. It was literally over that initial weekend of shelter-in-place that we pulled our senior staff in and worked out protocols and procedures so we could reopen on Monday and move to telehealth and virtual visits.
It was a blessing and a curse because you still need to check people's blood pressure. You still need to check their A1c levels. We had to switch to emergency appointments only. That was a really, really tough time in many regards.
At that same time, we saw a 200% increase in demand for behavioral health services. We saw how pre-existing trauma in the community was exacerbated with the new trauma of COVID-19 and the layoffs that were happening. A lot of our members work in the service industry, so they were in the first group to be laid off.
The demand for behavioral health services clearly exemplified that there was significant trauma in these communities that pre-existed COVID. This is trauma layered on top of trauma. Anti-immigrant sentiments, living wage issues, higher rents, structural racism—all these things were rooted in this community prior to the pandemic.
COVID layered on top of that – mass layoffs of service workers, food insecurity, and kids who couldn’t go to school. The reality of their lives doesn't accommodate social distancing. We saw huge rates of infection of 30-40% in the communities we serve.
DSAL: What role did ALL IN Alameda County’s Recipe4Health model play in addressing the crisis and alleviating food insecurity and stress?
GREG: Giving people food is essential, and the impact R4H has on people is enhanced by group medical visits, which allow like-minded individuals with similar health concerns to come together in a safe environment. Bringing together like-minded people who suffer similar health conditions in a facilitated group setting builds self-resiliency. Resilience theory stresses the importance of being around others with similar issues, so that views, feelings, and coping mechanisms can be shared with others who understand because they have similar concerns. The improvements stay with people longer, so when the meal programs come to an end, the lessons learned through the group medical visits stay with them the rest of their lives.
Building individual resiliency, helping people find coping mechanisms for their health conditions, giving them the spiritual, movement, cooking, and meditation training—those are essential aspects of the R4H intervention, and by combining those aspects with the food and meals is a true whole-person approach.
DSAL: Tell us about your background and how you ended up in the field of healthcare.
GREG: I'm a kid from Fresno, raised on tip money by a single mother after my father abandoned our family when I was just ten years old. My mom is an immigrant from Japan who arrived to the United States in 1958 after marrying my father in Japan when he was stationed there during his military service. My mom took a course at a junior college to take an English class just so that she could read and write English. The only job she could get was waitressing at a Japanese restaurant, and my brother, mom, and I literally survived on the tips that she earned since the minimum wage at that time was only $1.75/hour. What that instilled in me was a sense of concern for others living in poverty, and I learned to be grateful for every little thing you have: Christmas and birthday gifts were not toys or bicycles, they were socks, jeans, or shoes to replace those worn out from the previous year.
I was born on an Air Force base, and after high school, I was accepted to Fresno State University and later joined the ROTC program there. I also was the first minority vice president elected to the student body, and first minority on the Academic Senate. I have always wanted to be of service to others and was starting to understand how one person's voice can have an impact over a whole population of people. That was exciting to me.
But Fresno State wasn't a fertile place for me. I ended up doing poorly academically and left school after two years. From that experience, I learned that where a person starts does not necessarily dictate where you end up. I read historical biographies about FDR, Booker T. Washington, MLK, JFK, Lincoln, Ghandi —a whole list—and I learned that these historical figures went through trauma and difficult life circumstance as well and still went on to live productive lives contributing to society
I realized that I had to leave Fresno to find an enriching environment that nurtured my passion for service and curiosity about the diverse cultures comprising the world. I had to change my life.
That's the start of the person sitting here today. I moved to Berkeley, attended two years of junior college, earned my way into UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, lived abroad for three years, and later was accepted into graduate school in the Department of City and Regional Planning with the plan to return internationally to help build cities in developing countries. During my first year in my graduate program, I told my fellowship director that I wanted to go back to China after I graduated, because I wanted to be part of the World Bank to support impoverished communities in China and other developing countries. He said, "Jump in the car with me," and he drove me through West Oakland. We stopped by a health clinic and drove down International Boulevard. I saw the poverty and homelessness here in our own community, which was his intention. When we got back to campus, he asked, "What do you think now?" And I said, "I get it. I'm going to dedicate my life to work here – to work locally."
I actually left the program after being recruited by Oakland’s City Manager to run community development programs for the City of Oakland and threw myself into work full-time. I returned to school later to complete my Master of Public Health degree to further develop my community development expertise.
DSAL: Please describe the Native American Health Center's partnership with DSAL and Dig Deep Farms and why you are so dedicated to this partnership.
GREG: About five years ago, I felt compelled to contribute even more to my community in my free time, so I met with Supervisor Nate Miley and asked him, “What do you recommend, and how can I be of service to the community?" The Supervisor said, "I want you to be on the DSAL board and contribute to guiding the important work they are doing.”
He introduced me to Captain Neideffer and Hilary Bass, and I saw what they were doing and their vision to fill in gaps in community programs—especially focused in the underserved, unincorporated communities—to support youth to successfully overcome the cycle of poverty and violence and severe social and economic inequities they experience every day. DSAL provides youth with opportunities for healthy exercise, team building, camaraderie and, again, resiliency.
We toured the Dig Deep Farms community gardens—it was so inspiring, these beautiful organic community gardens growing in vacant lots. Man, that's just powerful. I was so engaged by that. Taking vacant land, unused vacant properties in these commercial corridors, and having them provide nutritious sustenance to the community was awe-inspiring.
Later, when I was working at Alameda Health Consortium, I met Dr. Steven Chen and heard his vision for Recipe4Health and saw the positive, evidence-based health outcomes of R4H—it was in alignment with all of the passion that I have for community service and whole person approaches to improving health and wellbeing. .
Then, in November 2019, just a few months before the pandemic, Native American Health Center in Oakland asked me to join their team in my current role as COO. When I arrived, we discussed the R4H model and the Clinic Director and long-time Lead Nurse Practitioner, Bonnie Trinclisti, fell in love with the program and championed the launch of the R4H at NAHC in 2020, Now we are finishing our second year under her leadership, operating two groups, one in both Spanish and English.
From being introduced to DSAL, to learning about the amazing public health programs DSAL sponsors, then to meeting Dr. Chen and launching a R4H program at a community health center, it was all a continuum of my being more and more invested in the community and in DSAL and its mission.
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