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UB Med Students Take Good Nutrition to Heart, Establish Campus Vegetable Garden

By Lois Baker

Release Date: April 23, 2010

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A quarter-acre vegetable garden is taking shape at the University at Buffalo, pioneered by a group of medical students who are putting into practice one of the axioms of the modern Hippocratic Oath: "I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure."

In this case, prevention is starting with a plot of land adjacent to Creekside Village, a townhouse complex for graduate and professional students on the north end of UB's North Campus, where the soil is rich and there is easy access to water, two essential requirements for a successful vegetable garden.

The garden was the inspiration of second-year medical students Jennifer Chang and Dan Donovan, organizers of the group that calls itself "Sprouts." They were determined to motivate their colleagues to change their fast-food eating habits after coming face-to-face with the ramifications of an unhealthy lifestyle.

"During our hospital rounds we saw so much chronic disease -- diabetes, heart disease, obesity -- all lifestyle diseases that are preventable with a healthy, nutritious diet," says Chang.

"Then we looked around at the medical school students, and realized that many of us opt for cheap processed foods that are full of fats and sugars, contrary to what we are taught to tell patients about the importance of daily fruit and vegetable intake.

"We wanted a movement, not just a lecture on healthy eating, but we had no members, no money -- just a dream. We figured having a garden is a way to spark interest. It's an old idea that's new again. So that's where we started. It connects people with their food, and that is something few of us are doing."

Chang and Donovan began talking up the idea with other medical students, and started holding meetings and soliciting donations to cover costs of promoting the idea. To test the interest of fellow students in eating healthy, they set up baskets of apples for sale in the back of classrooms.

"We sold hundreds of apples," says Chang. "You could hear students crunching apples all over the classroom."

Word of the Sprouts plan spread, and students from other South Campus professional schools, as well as a sprinkling of undergraduates, came onboard. Members set up a website and began blogging. They posted videos of medical students preparing healthy dishes in their apartment kitchens. Peter Ostrow, MD, PhD, associate professor of pathology, volunteered to be their faculty advisor. Sprouts now has nearly 200 student members.

The group aims to change the perception of food preparation and consumption among medical students and raise awareness about nutritional approaches to lasting change for the health of Western New Yorkers through their own garden experiences.

While the initial goal of group is to have medical students get their hands into the soil and learn how to start and maintain a garden, they hope to educate the UB community about nutrition and healthy food preparation through on-campus events and seminars.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, April 24, 23 riders from UB's medical student chapter of the American Medical Association will join the 200 riders participating in the "Miles for Healthier Lifestyles" bike ride, which originated in Boston and ends in Niagara Fall. The UB riders are using the event to help raise funds for Sprouts. (Persons interested in making a contribution can go to http://www.supportourgroup.com/ZF1670.)

Chang and Donovan now have passed the garden spade along to Angela Sandell, co-president for business, and Tom Langan, co-president and garden manager. They will be supported by a core of a dozen more medical students. The group plans to have the plot ready for midsummer planting.

"I am honored to be a part of a movement toward prevention of chronic disease, beginning with healthy food choices," says Sandell. "I'm excited to see the enthusiasm for the organization from students, administration and staff. We are proving that a critical mass of motivated individuals can bring about change."

Crops from the Sprouts farm will be distributed to local charities; some will be used for cooking lessons and demonstrations, with the remainder divided among garden volunteers. Sprouts members also plan to develop ways for medical students to learn how to counsel their patients on nutrition, weight loss and life-style changes.

For more information on the garden, go to http://wings.buffalo.edu/org/sprouts.