Last year, in January 2017, Julian, Christelle, and I created a student group called Root Causes, that focuses on improving population health through improving the food system. This group was born out of Julian’s passion for issues of food justice, Christelle’s interest in clinical practice reform to address social determinants of health, and my desire to find community based solutions to address population health. Over the course of last Spring we engaged in numerous activities, such as establishing the Fresh Produce Program at DOC, with the help of a Chancellor’s Service Fellowship, to provide free locally-sourced fruits and vegetables to food insecure patients there. Another major focus of our group was on service in the community to provide support for local efforts to increase access to healthy food and combat food insecurity. We were directed by Howard Eisenson MD, CMO of Lincoln Health Center, to reach out to Edwina Gabriel RN. In addition to serving as Lincoln’s Director of Nursing, she also operates the Change Center, a small neighborhood garden and food pantry in Central Durham. Dr. Eisenson recommended we reach out to try and volunteer with her. We started off with a couple of volunteering events with her, helping weed and plant tomatoes, peas, and peppers. Within a couple sessions she gave me a key to the shed in the back to come and do gardening whenever I wanted.
Over the course of the summer, the Change Center became our go-to location for volunteering, and we were able to develop our relationship with Edwina. She began to tell us about how she hoped to expand the Change Center’s impact by developing other small neighborhood gardens around Durham for other health focused, community organizations. In her mind, these smaller gardens were a perfect opportunity to address hunger in Durham while also revitalizing currently unused land. It has been well studied how community gardens positively impact the neighborhoods in which they are located in a number of ways, including creating opportunities for job training, decreasing crime and violence, increasing access to fresh produce, and providing direct economic benefit to those who use the garden. In fact, studies have shown that every $1 invested in community gardens yields $6 of produce1. Edwina talked with us about potential partnerships she was pursuing, including working with Samaritan Health Center at their Durham Rescue Mission clinic site.
At the beginning of the new academic year in August 2017 Julian, Christelle, and I met with new first-year medical students interested in joining Root Causes. At this meeting, I talked about our work with the Change Center and our plans to expand this work with Edwina. I explained how I had regularly been going to work at the Change Center garden, and challenged the first-year students to take the key to shed off me as I started on the wards soon. Two first-years, Josh Hayden and Liz Kobe, answered this challenge with aplomb, volunteering repeatedly at the Change Center garden, constructing a small greenhouse and numerous raised beds for produce. The three of us began to work with Edwina closely on her partnership with Samaritan Health Center and the Durham Rescue Mission (DRM). We began to develop an idea for a community garden based wellness program. Our mission was to provide a garden space for tenants of the Durham Rescue Mission to cultivate a safe space for healing and growth while producing their own fresh fruits and vegetables for sustenance. DRM leadership told us that members of their Victory Program, a twelve-month holistic program designed to help DRM residents overcome addiction and rejoin the workforce, would be interested in taking part in a community garden. The majority of our efforts would be in helping build the garden and providing continuing gardening education and support to Victory Program participants. We applied for the Chancellor’s Service Fellowship in early February 2018 to help cover startup costs, and in the second week of March we found out we had been selected. Josh, Liz, and I will be beginning construction and planting in early April. We are excited to work with residents at Durham Rescue Mission to find innovative and holistic ways to improve their health!