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Fresh produce delivery program helps Duke medical students address 'root causes' of medical problems

A non-profit created by Duke Medical students combines fresh produce delivery with patient visits to try and understand the root causes of disease.

Posted Updated

Lora Lavigne
, WRAL Durham reporter
DURHAM, N.C. — A nonprofit created by Duke medical students is combining fresh produce delivery with patient visits to try and understand the root causes of disease.

The change makers are part of Root Causes, a program started by Duke medical students. They volunteer to help tackle food insecurity through education, outreach and community service. Dozens of volunteers come to the Farmer Foodshare Warehouse in Durham weekly to prepare produce bags and deliver them to families in need.

Since the start of the pandemic, that need grew tremendously, allowing the group to get hands-on and address the root causes of medical problems in Durham.

“These are lettuce and kale that’s grown here in North Carolina. We also have sweet potatoes, of course," said Root Causes Vice President of Operations Scott Brummel, who was describing what he was packaging in the bags.

“We just spend our morning getting everything distributed and sent on its way," he added.

The program has become a huge asset during the pandemic.

“Before COVID, we were serving about 30 families who would come to the clinic physically," said Jason Lee, the Fresh Produce Program manager. "Now that we’re able to reach patients with our volunteers’ vehicles, we’ve expanded to a total of about 217."

In partnership with physicians at Duke’s outpatient clinic, they’ve screened patients who are food insecure and also have chronic conditions to help supplement their needs beyond the typical dose of medication.

“These students know that there’s a biological basis for many diseases, but at the end of the day, there are a lot of social and economic factors that impact health," Lee said.

“You can argue that everyone can benefit from fresh produce, but the fact that they’re not only food insecure, but often have chronic disease, many of which can be remedied by diet, is really helpful," said Catarina Martinez, a project manager.

From providing fresh produce bags to essential items and educational forms, the group is also able to focus on those hit the hardest by the virus.

“Together, we’re researching this question of why the Latinx population is disproportionately affected by COVID and how we can sort of use this fresh produce program delivery model to increase resilience in that population," Martinez said.

Through this hands-on approach of collecting research data, the students hope Root Causes will eventually influence policy and become apart of the health care system indefinitely.

“I thought that that fit perfectly with what I wanted to be as a physician, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to jump in and do something meaningful," Lee said.

Currently the group is delivering items once a week. In partnership with Farmer Foodshare and other local organizations, they receive the produce from donations.

They also started a GoFundMe page to keep their work going, as the pandemic led to an even greater need in the community.


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