Medical students get their hands dirty volunteering in urban gardens

First-year medical student Kai Jones (right) talks with classmate Emma Winkler as they place fence posts at City Seeds Urban Farm in St. Louis. Also shown are fellow students Connor Lia (blue hat) and Yusuf Jordan (white hat). (Credit: Robert Boston)

Following a weeklong orientation that focused on health disparities and public health, first-year students at Washington University School of Medicine got their hands dirty working at urban gardens in St. Louis. The students volunteered with Gateway Greening, a nonprofit organization that works to establish and sustain green spaces in neighborhoods across the city.

Among the group’s goals are neighborhood beautification and improving access to locally grown produce.

Medical students (from left) Alex Goldberg, Fayola Fears and Max Schaettler pull weeds in the Fountain Park community garden on North Euclid Avenue. (Credit: Robert Boston)

One of the volunteers, Kai Jones, said the event tied in nicely to some of the talks students heard during the Washington University Medical Plunge (WUMP), the orientation program. WUMP was created in part so that medical students would see patients beyond clinical settings and better understand the environments from which they come. Among the topics addressed during WUMP were malnutrition and “food deserts.”

“A food desert is an area that is experiencing food insecurity,” explained Jones. “City Seeds Urban Farm, a vegetable farm downtown where we volunteered, is looking to improve access to fresh vegetables in areas that don’t have grocery stores.”

City Seeds Urban Farm distributes its produce to urban residents by partnering with local food pantries and other entities. The farm also sells produce at a market in the Grove neighborhood. The market is sponsored by members and run by volunteers.

“Residents in such neighborhoods may not have access to fresh fruits or vegetables or a place to eat that goes beyond fast-food options,” said Jones. “A lot of communities have places like that that offer inexpensive dinners, but they’re not going to provide the healthiest choices.”

Brian Hickman, who volunteered with Jones, said working at the site was a great opportunity for students to learn about community improvement efforts in St. Louis and how to get involved in them.

“It’s important for us to find ways to be involved in the community outside of clinical medicine,” Hickman said. “Programs like this address both physical and social needs in the community, which ultimately have a large influence on health.”

For more photos, visit this School of Medicine Flickr page.

The Arch and other well-known structures downtown can be spotted from nearby City Seeds Urban Farm. (Credit: Robert Boston)