Darlene A. White
Need a tomato for a sandwich? Wayne State University medical students are on a mission to deliver fresh fruit and vegetables to the front doors of food insecure children and adults in Detroit.
“Detroit is considered a ‘food desert’ by the Michigan Department of Agriculture,” said Margo Mekjian, medical student and vice president of the Fresh Prescription program. “A ‘food desert’ is defined as an area that has limited access to nutritious and affordable food. As we all know, consuming nutritious food plays a huge role in our health, especially when it comes to high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
Fresh Prescription, or Fresh Rx, is a student-run organization at Wayne State’s School of Medicine that offers participants, especially residents of Detroit with chronic health conditions, a free “prescription” to purchase food from. the markets or have homemade fruits and vegetables delivered.
The mission is to help ease the financial burden of purchasing food and support the health of patients by providing them with fresh fruits and vegetables, and to challenge patients to set health goals they can maintain throughout their life.
“The members of Fresh Rx are deeply passionate about helping the Detroit community and expanding our role as future physicians to engage our community towards a healthier future,” Mekjian said.
The group is essential not only for providing residents of Detroit with opportunities to access healthier food options, but also for providing education on the health benefits and lifestyle changes.
The Detroit-wide program began in 2013 as a partnership between the CHASS Center in southwest Detroit and the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor. Since its launch, Fresh RX has helped over 1,000 attendees and distributed over $ 50,000 in free products to eligible patients in Detroit. In its first 3 years, the WSUSOM Fresh Rx site, in particular, served almost 100 patients and hopes to increase the number of participants.
The program was introduced to the School of Medicine in 2018 by medical student Ethan Firestone as a small pilot program at the free Robert R. Frank Student Run clinic, affiliated with the WSU. The following year, Firestone and her classmate Melissa Wills transformed the pilot into a Fresh Rx accredited student organization, so medical students could contribute to the work being done across Detroit.
“I’ve learned a lot of things running this program,” said Ethan Firestone, medical student and co-founder of Fresh Prescription. “The program has given me invaluable experience working with underserved members of our community and has helped me learn to be more culturally aware in my medical care.”
Fresh Rx is installed every week and virtually at clinics in Detroit, including the Cass Clinic from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays and at the Central City Integrated Health Clinic, 10 Peterboro, from 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays.
Patients who enroll in the program can choose to get a Fresh Rx debit card, which can be used in markets across town.
“Our hope for Fresh Rx is to expand to all areas of the Detroit community and have a positive impact on the lives of as many Detroit residents as possible,” said Austin Mueller, President of Fresh Prescription. “High blood pressure, diabetes and obesity affect the short and long term health of our community. With the right nutrition and education, Fresh Rx believes we can reduce healthcare costs for our patients and improve the health of everyone who joins our organization.
Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised many challenges for the Fresh RX program.
“COVID-19 really set us back in terms of the ability to recruit and provide nutrition education to patients in person, as well as getting food to patients while in-person shopping was closed,” Mekjian said. “It was a challenge to connect with the patients and virtually organize the volunteers. However, Fresh Rx (with help from Eastern Market and other organizations) was able to pivot and still deliver this program to patients in the form of online education and food box delivery.
With the setback due to COVID-19, the Fresh RX group is not letting that stop it from extending its reach to people in the community.
“We want to make sure Fresh Rx can help as many people as possible,” Mueller said. “We have collaborated with other organizations in the medical school and will continue to connect and support other efforts to address food insecurity in our community. We hope that Fresh Rx will continue to grow with Detroit and even expand to other regions where needed. “
Over time, we hope to become an easily recognizable organization in the Detroit community known as a compassionate organization of future physicians who care deeply about those we passionately serve, he added.