For years now, Willa Johnson, of Letcher County, has confronted prediabetes head-on, especially in being intentional and thoughtful in mapping out a diet that can keep her blood sugar at a healthy level.
But then came the pandemic, which threw off so many of our routines. And then came actually contracting Covid, which then brought with it a lengthy, difficult case of Long Covid. And then came this summer’s catastrophic flood. All of which, she says, “has just been a series of hard hits,” both in life in general, but also when it comes to being able to eat thoughtfully.
In this audio story (push play above to hear!), Willa describes her experience both of surviving the flood, and then of managing prediabetes in the flood’s long, difficult aftermath, a time where having access to healthy food—which was already tricky for so many in eastern Kentucky—has become even harder. In particular, at one point after the flood, Willa says she opened one of the meal kits that had been donated to survivors— and inside each box, there were five Little Debbie cakes. Which, even if you’re grateful to be eating, is not exactly a meal geared towards keeping your blood sugar down.
And while Willa in this piece does talk about some of the many challenges of keeping her blood sugar under control amidst this crisis, she also shares some bright spots— including the “honky-tonk angels” who started serving free, hot meals (with veggies included!) at the Jenkins American Legion. She also discusses the need for better access to healthy food all across our region:
Push play above to listen, or click below to read a full transcript of this story.
Music in this story (“Cloud of Unknowing” and “Cross”) was performed by James Blackshaw, via the Free Music Archive.Click here for the full transcript of this story:
[WILLA JOHNSON] At one point, my Dad brought home dinners. And I opened it up, and in each meal kit was five Little Debbie Cakes. And I was like— under no circumstance do we need five Little Debbie cakes with a lunch! And how many people are prediabetic that are now eating five Little Debbie cakes a day? This might be the thing that pushes them to be diabetic, honestly.
My name’s Willa Johnson. I’m originally from McRoberts, Ky.; recently moved to Jenkins, Ky. And I’m the Director of Films at Appalshop.
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So when the flood was hitting, my mom called and told me to wake up. It was, like, 2:30 [AM]; I had just fallen asleep at 2. And I had my air conditioner going upstairs, so I couldn’t hear a whole lot, other than the rain. And I looked outside—and I live on a main highway—in between me and the post office was, like, a river. And I was like, I can’t believe this. And then I went to the neighbors’ side of the house and was texting them, and telling them to wake up. And they said, ‘Turn off your heat pump, it’s up around your heat pump.’ And I just, like— I have seen floods. I have never dreamed it would get that high, and still, even seeing it that high, wasn’t processing that it could be in my house.
And so I went to top of the steps to go turn off the heat pump. And when I did, a pair of my shoes went floating by in front of me. And, just… sheer panic. Couldn’t call 911, couldn’t call out– and then our cell phones went down on top of it. So it was just complete isolation after that.
I was set to purchase my first home the next day. Had a U-haul rented. And my son— we went to bed that night, and I laid out a dress, and a nice outfit for him, because we were going to sign on my first home the next day. And I was just so proud that I was able to do this for him— and at 3:30 in the morning we were being evacuated out of the home by the sheriff.
And so we left in the middle of the night, and walked to my parents’ house, who lived up the road, on a hillside. And I put him back to bed, and we watched the second flood hit, that was much worse. And the home took about almost three feet of water the second time. They were supposed to get three more inches of rain the next night. And my parents’ house was safe, but it’s on a hillside. Like, not flat on a hillside, like, ON a hillside. And there was mudslides and landslides everywhere. The main bridge to our town was gone, and there was a partial bridge that was left, and was getting ready to be closed. And before they could shut it down, we left over that bridge. Which was not smart; not safe. [INTERVIEWER] But that was the only way out? [WILLA] Yeah. That was the only way out.
* * *
But we knew this house that I had purchased—which I didn’t get to close on, but had a key to—was up on a hill, and dry and safe. And so we came here, and slept on floors a few nights. But we hadn’t moved into this house yet. So there was no water; there was no food. A lot of the stores had gotten flooded, so you couldn’t even go purchase anything.
So having access to places that have been providing meals has been crucial. But it’s also been… a little bit of an experience on what you get offered. The first few days— was hot dogs. Lots and lots and lots of hot dogs. People would drive by in trucks and hand them out to you while you were cleaning up the house… at one point we ended up with extra bags of hot dogs. And so as I was leaving, I saw a neighbor outside, and slowed down, and was like ‘Do you all need hot dogs?’ And she was like, ‘We were about to ask you the same thing!’ So everybody got really over hot dogs, really quickly.
But at one point, my dad brought home dinners—I can’t remember what group made it—and I opened it up, and in each meal kit was five Little Debbie cakes. And I was just like, under no circumstance do we need five Little Debbie cakes with a lunch! And for me, I’m prediabetic, but I also know I’m prediabetic, and am a little bit more careful. My dad is very much diabetic, and is 75, and is not as careful as he should be. And so every time he gets one of these meal kits, I’m just like… [sighs].
One day, I finally was just like, everyone stop what you’re doing— and I went and bought a lot of canned vegetables. But I was just like, I’m just making soup. Like, we’re just going to eat a soup. And make some sandwiches with it. And so even that felt like such a decadent meal, because it was hot. Because it was home-cooked. Because it had vegetables in it.
* * *
A lot of people lost their first floors, and so that’s where your kitchen is. Or they lost— like, my parents didn’t lose anything in their house, but they lost electricity and water for a week. And so the things they had went bad, and they lost all of that. And then when you DO get water, the water is on boil water advisory. So it’s just incredibly layered. It’s not that people aren’t wanting to eat vegetables. Everyone is so… I mean, they’re working 13-14 hour days. Everyone is so tired. If you’re not working on your own property, you’re helping your neighbor. If you’re not helping your neighbor, you’re probably out delivering the meals that are being made at one of these centers.
And, I would say, I’ve also seen a lot of local places step up when they saw that people were really getting burnt out on hot dogs and hamburgers. Because that’s the easiest thing to do, is set up a grill. And, that’s what we keep saying— like, we appreciate it! We’ll eat it if we’re really busy and we need something to eat. But we’re really tired of them too!
And so some places, like the Jenkins American Legion, are, like, cooking home-cooked, more rounded meals to deliver out. And those have been really, really healing, in a way. To just slow down and, one, taste the food you’re eating. Because for days I feel like I didn’t taste anything. You were just eating in such a hurry, or your phone was going non-stop, or you had somewhere to go, so you were eating on the run.
And then we found the American legion. Which, I will say has been my bright shining spot in all of this—is that a couple days a week, we go into a smoky bar, with women who call you sis, or baby, and they go back and they, like, grab meatloaf and peas and carrots and bring it out to you. I just keep laughing, I’m like, ‘I found honky tonk angels in the middle of all of this!’
* * *
For me personally, I’m prediabetic, and was working really hard to get it under control. Then the pandemic hit, and I was very, very worried about it. Because I was prediabetic. I had PCOS [Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome]. I have a history of pneumonia, I get pneumonia very easy. And I’m a single mom. And I have parents who are elderly who I help take care of, and they were very high-risk.
And so I just put my life on hold, for a year and a half— just completely isolated. And so it was really hard emotionally to go through. So that really impacted my eating a little bit there, just because, it was like, emotional isolation. Boredom. Not going in grocery stores as much to pick out the stuff.
And then we actually got covid. And had to have the IV infusion, and was pretty sick, but then faced long covid symptoms: for like eight months, it was just extreme fatigue. And so, that really impacted— like, I just didn’t want to cook, I didn’t have the energy to cook. And so I was just really starting to feel some normalcy when all of this hit.
[INTERVIEWER] Could you talk a little bit sort of about that? Because I know you, in the past, have done some meal planning. [WILLA] Mm-hmm. I had really gotten lax on the meal planning. But a couple things we were doing was Hello Fresh meal kits— that way, I was making sure we had some vegetables every week. And we kept a lot of fruit at the house, and ate a lot of fruit, and stuff.
That… doesn’t happen at all now. I keep buying fruit, but we’re just on the run all the time, that I don’t slow down enough to wash it, and store it, and make sure it’s safe to eat. So we just keep grabbing snacks on the go.
But I think, for the most part, I still have enough presence of mind to sort of limit the intake of what I’m having that would raise my blood sugar. But, I definitely— soda has been the hard part for me. That has always been the hardest thing for me. It’s very much a comfort. You know, in college, when I had very little money, I would prioritize buying a case of Coke over food. I won’t buy it to have at the house right now, I’m only drinking water that’s been donated to us. But as soon as I go down the road, If I go anywhere and they’re like, ‘Do you want a Pepsi, or a Coke?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah. Yeah I want that.’ Because it really does do this weird thing, where I’m like— I imagine it’s like smoking a cigarette. Where as soon as you take a drink you’re like, [sighing] ‘Okay. I feel a little bit better now.’ And so that’s probably been the hardest thing for me to try to make sure I limit.
* * *
The thing we don’t want to talk about is the really poor live off the beaten path. There were people who didn’t have a lot of food access before the flood. And now they’re really out of the way to get to.
The gardens are ruined, and then their vehicles are ruined. They’re homeless. If they’re not homeless, they’re in unsafe conditions. Or they don’t have the roads they need to get where they need to get. And then, add on top of that inflation— and they were already facing issues with being able to afford groceries? It’s just— it is the perfect storm for a really big disaster facing this region.
And the rate of diabetics in this region is extremely high. And these people are on their feet day after day, hour after hour. And it’s just not healthy for them right now. And how many people are prediabetic that are now eating five Little Debbie cakes a day? This might be the thing that pushes them to be diabetic, honestly. Like, there are a lot of people whose bodies were giving warning signs before. The inability to listen to your body right now is going to have repercussions.
And I just keep thinking— I went through a flood, that I had to evacuate, when I was in the 6th grade. From a silt pond that broke in the holler I lived in. And I’m like, wow— no one told us about mold then. And we moved back into the double wide that got flooded underneath it. Is that why I get pneumonia every single winter? Like, what are we going to learn from this go-round? How many years does this take off? It’s just a very surreal realization, to realize how much these will impact us for years to come.
* * *
And then walking up the road, in the middle of the night, carrying him. I remember shaking. And, just, I mean— I was just walking, by tree limbs and debris and water, and he was in his t-shirt and underwear, clinging onto me. And I just— I think, for me, I block it out as, like, it was my trauma. I can block it out. But when he remembers it, when he talks about it— that’s really hard. Like, his trucks got pushed together the other day. And I said, ‘Oh, did your trucks wreck? And he said, ‘No. The flood did that.’ He just brings it up in really small ways. But the hardest part is when it rains, when it storms. Which it keeps doing. I feel really nervous when that happens; he falls apart.
And so I’ve been trying to think of ways he can help and be supportive. And so, one of the things I’m hoping to do is be able to cook and deliver meals. I won’t be able to do it on a large scale, but to deliver meals to people I know, once these daily meal stops slow down.
Because I just feel so incredibly lucky. I had an aunt and two cousins whose homes were all three picked up and smashed into each other. Yes, I lost things. Yes, it hurts. But I’m somewhere new, and safe, and dry. And I just feel like I need to use this moment to give back as much as I can. And so my hope is to do it through meals if I can. Like, hope they like vegetables! They might be getting a vegetarian lasagna!