Cultivating Wellness and Community: Project Grow Blooms with Promise

By: Olesea Svet | November 09, 2023

In the beating heart of Boca Raton, a group of passionate medical students and visionary leaders—Sara Burgoa, Shannon Gallup, Madison Goon, and Samantha Hicks—from Florida Atlantic University Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, are championing an initiative that promises to transform our community. Their mission is clear: to foster local growth and well-being by combining the power of teamwork, fresh produce, and educational programs. This is the inspiring story of Project Grow, an initiative that transcends the conventional boundaries of health care and enriches both medical students and the community.

Seeds of Inspiration: Nurturing a Vision

Every journey begins with an idea, and Project Grow's story is no different. It all started with a simple yet profound realization: despite the apparent affluence of Boca Raton, food insecurity is a harsh reality for many in the community. According to the 2022 report from the Palm Beach County Department of Health, a staggering 1 in 10 residents in Palm Beach County faced food insecurity. Furthermore, in 2019, a striking 23% of census tracts within the county were classified as "low income and low food access" areas, commonly known as food deserts. The department's priority was to increase access to healthy, affordable food, particularly in low-income census tracts and food deserts. This urgency sparked Project Grow's mission to create a healthier community.

Samantha Hicks, shared the project's inception: "As we brainstormed, someone suggested the idea of a community garden, and from that moment, it truly blossomed into something extraordinary."

With this idea in mind, the team saw an opportunity to create a medical student-led community garden that could address food insecurity while nurturing a sense of community. Project Grow's core mission was crystal clear: improve healthy eating habits, boost physical and mental well-being, and promote environmental sustainability.

A Trifecta of Impact: The Three Initiatives of Project Grow

Project Grow extends beyond gardening - it comprises three core initiatives, each aspiring to foster a positive impact on the community.

The first initiative is about growing a community garden. This effort led to seven raised garden beds, eight fruit trees, a vibrant assortment of flowers, and a variety of in-ground root vegetables. The team's dedication also breathed new life into the once-neglected greenhouse and gardening shed on Florida Atlantic's campus, transforming them into functional spaces.

The second initiative centers on nutritional education at the Caridad Center, providing patients with the knowledge and skills needed for healthier food choices. As the largest free clinic in Florida, Caridad Center serves 18% of low-income adult minorities in Palm Beach County, many of whom live in local food deserts. The medical students intend to use the garden-grown produce to help these patients overcome barriers to healthy food access and educate them on integrating gardening into their lives for sustainable, affordable, and nutritious meals.

The third initiative extends garden opportunities to local K-12 groups. Madison Goon passionately expressed, "We want to invite K-12 students to assist us and lead garden nutrition education classes." The goal is to sow the seeds of wellness early, nurturing healthy eating habits in future generations.

Guided by these initiatives, the team managed to secure a grant from the Arnold P. Gold Foundation. This funding paved the way for Project Grow to roll out during the summer of 2023.

A Growing Family: Collaboration and Community Engagement

What makes Project Grow stand out is its spirit of teamwork. Medical students, along with undergraduates, faculty, and even high school students from the GNOME gardening club at FAU Henderson High School, have come together to bring this project to life. As of now, a team of 71 volunteers has collectively contributed 255 hours of their time into this mission, and this commitment continues to grow.

The level of support from both students and faculty has been impressive, showing their commitment to make this project thrive. The overwhelming response and support from these volunteers highlight Project Grow's deep-rooted commitment to community engagement and the power of working together.

Shannon Gallup spoke about this team spirit, saying, "The enthusiasm from various groups to get involved in this space and bring their wonderful ideas to life is inspiring … we're providing a space, a platform for people to express their passions."

From Garden to Plate: Transforming the Community

Project Grow's impact on the community is truly exceptional. The garden will supply fresh produce for meal preparation workshops at the Caridad Clinic, giving patients access to affordable and nutritious food options.

The students have already organized three nutrition education workshops covering important topics like back-to-school readiness, self-care, and nutrition education for Breast Cancer Survivors. What makes these workshops unique is the combination of store-bought ingredients and vegetables grown in the garden. The team is proud to have distributed about 250 meals to Caridad Center patients, and they plan to continue this through monthly workshops.

Project Grow serves as a bridge, closing the gap between food insecurity and access to healthy food. They are making a real difference in people's lives, one meal at a time. Samantha Hicks reflected, "Even in wealthy areas, people may not be aware of how to eat healthily; education is a key part of our project."

Nurturing Future Health care Providers

Project Grow is also about nurturing the personal and professional growth of medical students.

Sara Burgoa, who has been at the forefront of this initiative, highlighted the invaluable skills and insights she has gained: "This experience has broadened my perspective on health care. It shows that health care extends beyond the clinic or hospital, and engaging with the community can be a powerful tool for promoting health and preventing illness. I now see the potential for partnerships with community organizations and resources to support patients in managing their health."

These skills, often missing from traditional medical curricula, are crucial for the health champions of tomorrow. They need to be advocates not only for their patients but also for their communities. Project Grow serves as a unique training ground where medical students learn to blend their medical knowledge with practical community engagement.

Roots in Education: Expanding to K-12 and Beyond

By fostering community engagement and holistic well-being, this project is set to leave a lasting impact on both the medical student community and the broader community it serves. The future of this project shines bright. Project Grow dreams of creating a sensory garden for children on the Autism Spectrum, further expanding its outreach and impact.

Moreover, the team has plans to enhance the project's effectiveness by introducing structured learning sessions during the weekly high school workdays. This approach aligns with Project Grow's mission of promoting healthy living and community well-being.

Project Grow's educational outreach touches younger generations, emphasizing the importance of healthy eating habits and environmental stewardship. By engaging K-12 students in garden-related activities and creating a sensory garden, Project Grow plants the seeds of wellness from a young age, inspiring a new generation to bond with nature and value nutritious food.

Faculty and School Support: The Catalyst for Success

Central to Project Grow's progress is the relentless support of Florida Atlantic University's Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine. Among the champions of this endeavor, Dr. Allison Holley, Dr. Adam Wyatt, Dr. Lisa Martinez, Sandra Siegman, and Joanna Duran, have played instrumental roles in overcoming administrative obstacles and securing essential resources.

Dr. Lisa Martinez, Associate Professor of Medicine, Associate Director of the Year 3 Curriculum, and Medicine Clerkship Director, expressed her pride, saying, "I am incredibly proud of and impressed by the efforts of our students to make this project a success, and look forward to further growth and future collaborations with other departments at the University and local schools."

Adam TM Wyatt, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Social Medicine, emphasized the project's significance: "Project Grow embodies the attributes you want to see from future physicians -- addressing community needs with unbridled personal passion. As a faculty member, every hour spent helping our students achieve their goals shows that we care not only about their educational careers, but their personal passions. And that's what Project Grow is about - an inextricable merging of professional identity as physicians and impassioned future community members committed to a healthier tomorrow."

Joanna Duran, Senior Director of Student Affairs and Student Services, added her enthusiasm: "We are thrilled to see the new Community Garden and Project Grow come to fruition. We are so proud of the medical students, and we look forward to seeing the positive impact the garden will have on our community and the people it touches."

A Garden of Promise: Looking to the Future

There's excitement in the air as Project Grow continues to bloom. The garden bursts with life, with colorful cabbage and peppers, and trees heavy with yucca and jackfruit. This space is more than just a garden; it's a sanctuary where people come together, and health and happiness grow.

Project Grow's journey is still unfolding. The team is busy with plans for research initiatives, documenting progress, and expanding educational outreach. With each sunrise, this humble garden is making a big difference, nurturing not just the medical students, but also the local community.

Project Grow at Florida Atlantic transcends gardening. It's about planting seeds for a brighter, healthier future. As this garden grows, so does our hope for wellness, community, and a lifestyle that respects our planet, showing that when we work together, there's nothing we can't achieve.

Be a part of Project Grow's amazing journey towards health and community. Your participation can help create lasting change.

Additional Information
The Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine offers students a variety of educational programs and degrees.
Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine
Florida Atlantic University
777 Glades Road, BC-71
Boca Raton, FL 33431