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Microgreens Project Grows Community Connections

December 15, 2022

By Lisa Ryan

College of Medicine students know that food plays an important role in health, and they want not only to share that knowledge with Philadelphians from underserved communities, but also to empower them to grow their own fresh food. Students are engaged in work through the Health Outreach Project (HOP) to provide community members with the tools to grow microgreens, a nutritious vegetable that is simple to grow.

Similar in appearance to sprouts, microgreens are a small plant that can be eaten raw or cooked and can add different flavors to a dish, depending on their type, according to Medical News Today. Microgreens need soil, sunlight and a daily misting to grow, and may take up just a bit of windowsill space.

Microgreens growing on windowsill.

The no-fuss plants, which yield fresh produce in just a few weeks, are perfect for people who may not have the time, space or previous experience to garden, said Jessica Nwabeke, MD program class of 2025 and a steering coordinator of the microgreens project. She and her peers have been visiting different community sites to educate people of all ages about growing microgreens, as well as the preventive health benefits of a balanced diet.

“People do care about their health and want ways to stay on top of maintaining a healthy diet and a healthy body and mind,” Nwabeke said. “Whenever we go into different communities and talk about something that's new, like microgreens, it's always exciting for people to learn about something that they can do right in their home.”

The microgreens project sees students visiting communities where people may not have easy access to affordable healthy foods or have the cultural familiarity to cook with the fresh produce that is available. Students provide and help community members assemble microgreens kits, which people take home along with a growing guide and recipe book.

“Essentially we are aiming to increase nutrition awareness in communities that might be less nutrition-privileged,” Nwabeke said. “We've seen how growing microgreens is applicable to people of different age groups, different socioeconomic statuses, different education levels. We are just having conversations with people about the growing process and about what healthy eating looks like, what it means to eat healthy, and tying that into chronic disease prevention.”

When students see previous program participants after they have grown a crop of microgreens themselves, they often ask about other vegetables they can grow at home, Nwabeke said. Students have introduced community members to growing sunflower seeds, as well as pea sprouts, and think the hands-on nature of the project is part of its success.

Although adults are excited about the do-it-yourself aspect of the microgreens project, they aren’t the only ones. HOP volunteers do school visits, sending kids home with their own microgreens and with an age-appropriate understanding of healthy eating and the importance of nutrition.

Rayna Marshall, MD program class of 2025 and a steering coordinator of the project, said HOP’s first visit to St. James School made a lasting impression: Teachers are showing a new group of students how to grow microgreens and have been giving the products out to community members.

Nwabeke has been struck by the importance of patient empowerment, and how supportive action can help doctors and patients work together to better patients’ health.

“Microgreens has really reminded me that so long as we can educate people and give them the tools, they feel like they can be a part of the solution in taking care of their health,” she said. “Teaching people to grow microgreens is just one of many things that can be done to give them a sense of autonomy.”

According to Ben Haslund-Gourley, an MD/PhD student in the second year of his Microbiology & Immunology PhD program, and founder of the microgreens project, education is a key part of the initiative, not only in terms of teaching community members, but also about the lessons learned by medical student volunteers.

He said HOP volunteers practice important skills in patient education and cultural humility during their lessons on microgreens and nutrition.

“I think we try to strike a delicate and respectful balance between promoting food as preventative medicine, and making sure we aren’t saying, ‘The foods that you may love, that are important to you culturally, are bad,’” he said. “Medical students want to educate people about things that can lower risk and promote health in positive ways, but still stay respectful and open-minded about food.”

One way HOP volunteers have enhanced their conversations about healthy eating and microgreens is by sharing recipes with community members. Thanks to a collaboration between students studying with the College of Nursing and Health Professions’ Drexel Food Lab Director Johnathan Deutsch, PhD, and Rachel Sherman, MPH ’24, project manager of the Food Lab, every HOP microgreens kit comes with recipes that use the vegetables in guacamole, chimichurri sauce and dumplings.

One of Sherman’s students saw a presentation by Haslund-Gourley and thought Sherman’s class could develop recipes in the Food Lab for HOP volunteers to turnkey to the community. Sherman discussed the idea with Haslund-Gourley, then with Deutsch, and the plan for a multidisciplinary addition to the microgreens project got underway.

While the recipes are an educational tool for the HOP students and helpful to the community members they meet, cooking with microgreens also benefited students in the Food Lab.

“Food has just such an impact on our health, and we do a lot of health research over here,” Sherman said. “Getting to work with the medical students will be important going forward, looking at the body as a holistic system that we need to take care of from every angle. I would love to do more with the medical school.”

Marshall said her visit to the Food Lab was a beneficial look at what is going on at Drexel outside of the College of Medicine. It was also an eye-opening addition to her recent study of anatomy, physiology, and other core first- and second-year topics in the MD program.

“It puts things in perspective and makes you realize how holistic medicine is, because in the classroom when you're so focused on learning the body systems and things like that, it can bog you down,” Marshall said. “Just seeing the Food Lab and thinking about all the ways that your health is impacted beyond just visiting your doctor definitely taught me a lot about how we can approach medicine in the future.”