Wayne State students' Fresh Rx program delivers produce to people in need

Darlene A. White
Special to The Detroit News

Need a tomato for a sandwich? Wayne State University medical students are on a mission to deliver fresh fruits 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, a medical student and vice president of the Fresh Prescription program. “A ‘food desert’ is defined as an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. As we all know, consuming nutritious food plays an immense role in our health, particularly as it relates 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 provides participants, specifically Detroit residents with chronic health conditions, with a free “prescription” to purchase food at markets or have fruits and vegetables delivered to their homes.

Fresh RX vice president Margo Mekjian, president Austin Mueller, Ethan Firestone, co-founder and chairman, and site coordinator Daniel Bota.

The mission is to help ease the financial burden of purchasing food and to support the patients’ health by providing fresh fruits and vegetables, and to challenge patients to form health-related goals that they can maintain throughout their lifetimes. 

“Fresh Rx members 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 to not only providing opportunities for Detroit residents to gain access to healthier food options, but also provide education on health benefits and lifestyle modifications.

The Detroit-wide program initially began in 2013 as a partnership between the CHASS center in southwest Detroit and the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor. Since launching, Fresh RX has helped more than 1,000 participants and distributed over $50,000 in free produce to qualifying patients around Detroit.  In its first 3 years, the WSUSOM Fresh Rx site, specifically, has served nearly 100 patients and hopes to expand the number of participants.

The program was brought to the School of Medicine in 2018 by medical student Ethan Firestone as a small pilot program 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.

“I have learned many 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 helped teach me how to be more culturally aware in my medical care.” 

Fresh Rx is set up weekly and virtually in clinics in Detroit, including at Cass Clinic from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays, and at Central City Integrated Health Clinic, 10 Peterboro, from 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays.

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

“Our hope for Fresh Rx is to expand to every region of the Detroit community and positively impact the lives of as many Detroit residents as possible,” Austin Mueller, president of Fresh Prescription, said. “High blood pressure, diabetes and obesity are detrimental to our community’s short and long-term health. Through proper nutrition and education, Fresh Rx believes that we can reduce healthcare costs for our patients and improve the health of each person who signs up with 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 being able to recruit and provide nutrition education to patients in person, as well as get the food to the patients while in-person shopping was shut down,” said Mekjian. “It was a challenge to connect with patients and organize volunteers virtually. However, Fresh Rx (with the help of Eastern Market and other organizations) was able to pivot and still provide this program for patients in the form of online education and food box delivery.”

With the setback, due to the COVID-19, the Fresh RX group is not letting that hinder them from expanding their reach to people in the community. 

“We want to make sure that Fresh Rx can help as many people as possible,” Mueller said. “We have been collaborating with other organizations at the medical school and will continue to connect with 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 it is needed.”

Over time, we hope to become an easily recognizable organization in the Detroit community that is known as a compassionate organization of future physicians that deeply care about those whom we passionately serve, he added.