September 30, 2021

Fresh Rx: Student organization delivers fruits and vegetables to Detroit residents with chronic health conditions

Fresh Rx Site Coordinator Tristayn Owen, from left, Vice President Margo Mekjian and President Austin Mueller showcased the group at a recent student organization fair for fellow medical students.

A nutrition-based community outreach effort led by Wayne State University medical students is making the childhood edict to “eat your veggies” easier to achieve for food-insecure children and adults in Detroit.

Fresh Prescription, or Fresh Rx, is a student-run organization at the School of Medicine that provides participants, specifically Detroit residents with chronic health conditions, with a free “prescription” to purchase food at markets or have fruits and vegetables sent to their homes.

“Fresh Rx was created to improve the burden of chronic health conditions in Detroit residents and combat their food insecurity through increased access to fruits, vegetables and nutritional education,” said medical student and Fresh Rx Vice President Margo Mekjian. 

Medical students Melissa Wills and Ethan Firestone co-founded the student organization.

The Detroit-wide program initially began as a partnership between the CHASS center in southwest Detroit and the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor in 2013. Since then, it has expanded, with the network convened under the Eastern Market Partnership, helping more than 1,000 participants and distributing more than $50,000 in free fruits and vegetables to qualifying patients across Detroit.

The program was brought to the School of Medicine in 2018 by medical student Ethan Firestone as a small pilot at the WSU-affiliated Robert R. Frank Student Run Free Clinic. The next year, Firestone and classmate Melissa Wills transitioned the pilot into an accredited Fresh Rx student organization, so that medical students could contribute to the work being done across Detroit.

“In its first three years, the School of Medicine Fresh Rx site has served nearly 100 patients, and in an expansion effort, we hope to have 80 participants in 2021,” Mekjian said.

She and President Austin Mueller are second-year medical students.

“Our roles include liaising between the organization and student body, running our promotional campaign, organizing volunteer trainings and sign-ups, and overseeing operations at our various sites,” Mueller said. “We are also helped by Ethan and Melissa – co-founders and chair and vice chair, respectively – who focus on liaising between the clinics, food partners and greater Fresh Rx network and our student organization, as well as overseeing the executive board. Finally, we have a number of site coordinators who are also second-year medical students and are responsible for running the individual sites and managing the other medical student volunteers.”

Fresh Rx is set up weekly and virtually in clinics in Detroit, including at Cass Clinic from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays, and at Central City Integrated Health Clinic from 9 a.m. to noon Wednesdays.

“We usually have additional in-person sites, but due to COVID-19 we are unable to be in-person for every clinic. However, for the virtual sites, we still provide Fresh Rx to the Wertz Clinic in Karmanos Cancer Institute using telemedicine and a food box delivery system. We offer our first- and second-year medical students opportunities to volunteer both in-person and virtually every week with each of the clinics,” Mueller added.

Patients who enroll in the program can choose to obtain a Fresh Rx debit card, which can be used at markets throughout the city.

“The other option, especially for virtual patients, is to utilize a food box delivery system whereby the fruits and vegetables are dropped off straight to an individual’s household,” Mekjian said.

Volunteers in the program conduct brief nutrition education sessions over the phone and/or in-person to discuss nutrition topics as well as the patient’s goals. Students can sign up at https://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c0d4baba729a7fec16-fresh 

Virtual volunteer opportunities, including calling and conducting brief nutrition education sessions over the phone, are also available. Fill out this form to participate.

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