How med students in Ontario are putting food on the table for the most vulnerable populations
Of all the obstacles the coronavirus pandemic has thrown our way, perhaps the most fundamental has been how to feed ourselves. At the peak of the lockdown, this meant carefully-planned trips to the grocery store to stock up for the long term—or, if we were feeling ambitious, a take-out order from whatever nearby restaurant might be open for business. But for vulnerable populations, especially the elderly and those with chronic health issues, getting food on the table wasn’t so simple. Luckily, just like they did in so many other areas, medical students stepped up to help.
KHealth – Kingston’s Community Health Initiative – is a volunteer organization made up of students from the Faculty of Health Sciences at Queen’s University that aims to help vulnerable and marginalized people in the Kingston area. While they first came together last year, the unique challenges of the COVID-19 situation forced them to pivot: as medical students, they’d spent the year following members of the Kingston community as part of the school’s First Patient program, and had witnessed firsthand what day-to-day life was like for someone with a chronic illness. It was this insight that inspired them to help by buying/delivering groceries and running errands for vulnerable individuals in the city.
“We began to recruit medical, nursing, occupational therapy and physical therapy student volunteers from the Faculty of Health Sciences at Queen’s University,” says Valera Castanov, the founder of KHealth and a third-year Queen’s medical student, “and we started reaching out to all of our former First Patients to offer support, and later to low income housing and social services, retirement homes, community and street health centres and many other local organizations so that we could expand our services.”
When volunteers go out, they maintain strict precautions, using hand sanitizer, gloves, personal masks, and, of course, by keeping an appropriate distance. To minimize physical contact, groceries are left outside the door, and payment is left in the mailbox or transferred online. Timing is essential to these transactions, so everything is set up beforehand by an executive member. It’s a simple solution: bringing groceries to vulnerable people keeps them from leaving their homes, thereby reducing their risk of exposure.
But it’s not just a one-time transaction. KHealth’s clients can request to be paired with a volunteer who will contact them weekly by phone to take their order and, more importantly, ensure that things are otherwise going well. This is specifically aimed at preventing social isolation and promoting inclusion and wellness, which is especially important during this time of social distancing. “After the COVID-19 crisis levels out a bit, we plan to expand this component and include in-person visits,” says Castanov. “Students will be able to go on walks, play cards, engage in other forms of exercise, or otherwise provide social support and facilitate physical activity.”
The KHealth initiative isn’t just making an impact in Kingston—the program has spawned similar efforts in schools across Ontario. “We presented our community support program to other medical schools at the Ontario Medical Student Association’s COVID-19 Forum, and soon after, a group of students from Western University reached out for our help in establishing their own grocery initiative. We had several meetings with them and shared our knowledge and resources—now they have a successful grocery initiative of their own.”
“With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic it became extremely difficult to know where, as first year medical students, we could help make a difference,” says Merhu Berhe, a medical student at Western. “We realized one of the main ways we could assist as younger, healthier individuals would be through a free Grocery Delivery service.”
Berhe, along with colleagues Dave Campbell and Kaveh Farrokhi, established a grocery delivery program to service the London and Windsor region. As with the initiative in Kingston, it was designed specifically to keep those most at-risk from exposing themselves to COVID-19 while maintaining their existing level of comfort. “One of the great things about our program is that we are working outside of just the med program—we have volunteers from allied health professions such as nursing and dentistry who have also committed to assisting the community at-large. In fact, the great response in Windsor has actually produced consideration of a permanent volunteer program in the area.”
Having established themselves in London and Windsor, the group is now looking to extend their services into new communities. If you would like to volunteer or set-up a grocery delivery program and/or a phone-calls for social wellness program in your city, please feel free to reach out to KHealth at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at kingstonhealth.ca.
We’ve noticed many other initiatives like KHealth that are popping up across the country. Check them out below and see how you might be able to get involved in your area:
- Prince George
- Greater Toronto Area