Durham nutritious food bank sees surge in growth during coronavirus pandemic

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- A Durham nonprofit, Root Causes, which provides weekly fresh produce and nutritious items to food-insecure patients has seen a surge in need and growth during the coronavirus pandemic.

"In general, the medical field is recognizing more and more that interventions inside of the clinic don't really help target people's overall health," explained Root Causes co-president and second-year medical student, Tamar Chukrun.

"And, health is a lot more than just a medication that you can prescribe to someone," she added. "The concept behind this is if we have patients that are struggling, maybe with their blood sugar or their blood pressure, and we can provide them with fresh produce almost like a prescription. Then we can help improve their health outcomes and their quality of life."

The nonprofit, started by Duke Medical students in 2017, focuses on healing the food system through education, outreach, community service and advocacy with projects like the Fresh Produce Program. The Fresh Produce Program allowed food-insecure patients to pick up a bi-weekly supply of fresh, local produce at the Duke Outpatient Clinic. But, when COVID-19 hit, the clinic had to cease the service and medical students decided to find another way to continue to help patients in need.

"When COVID hit and you know people were pulled off clinic and suddenly, we weren't doing distributions anymore at the clinic, we all kind of got together in a Zoom call and we were like, 'COVID if anything makes food insecurity worse not better, and we don't feel like it's okay to just stop providing the service that people are depending on just because our schedules are changing,'" Chukrun said. "We take this work really seriously. So, we met with the clinic team to kind of gauge their interest in expanding the program. And then we just sat down and created this delivery model basically from scratch."

She says the students found a way to organize with about 100 volunteers to make sure patients continued to receive the healthy food they needed. The pack the items each week at Farmer Foodshare in Durham and deliver it to patient's homes.

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

"We used to serve about 30 to 40 patients every other week," Chukrun said. "Now, we're serving about 200 patients."

As the weeks passed, the volunteers became more organized, and applied for, and received several grants allowing Root Causes to meet the increased need and grow the organization.

"We have a grant from the American Heart Association, that's helped fund a lot of this," Chukrun said. "We have a Duke and Durham grant. Farmer Foodshare, who's our partners here, they received a grant from the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) to provide us with boxes for fresh produce."

Root Causes provides patients with recipes and gathers feedback about how to best serve them. They are also gathering data and research on their outcomes as volunteers help to combat food insecurity for patients one delivery at a time.
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