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Medical student addresses food needs during pandemic

Posted by Emily Stembridge on Friday, March 19, 2021 in Around the Medical Center, Spring 2021 .

Stephanie Hart, a third-year student in Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine, is partnering with Cole Elementary School to help fight food insecurity in the Nashville community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When schools across the country closed in March 2020, many children did not get the meals they normally received during the school day. Hart knew she had to do something. Her idea was to bring community refrigerators, a place where children and their families can obtain the food they need, to Nashville.

“Families being affected by the financial impact of the coronavirus made the subject of food insecurity more important than ever. Children seemed to be a vulnerable population that would benefit from a project like this,” Hart said.

A Connecticut native, Hart moved to Nashville from New York City to pursue medical school at Vanderbilt University in 2017. After seeing community refrigerators pop up across New York, she decided to approach the Nashville mayor’s office to gauge its interest in a similar project. The office connected Hart with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) to brainstorm a location for the community refrigerators, eventually settling on Cole Elementary in Antioch. MNPS stocked the refrigerator for the initial opening, and the project was brought to life.

The refrigerators rely on direct food donations from individuals, organizations, farmers, grocery stores and restaurants. In addition to fighting food insecurity, the project helps to reduce food waste by redistributing surplus food that would otherwise be thrown away. Hart hopes the Cole Elementary community refrigerators can become a sign of hope and opportunity for the community, because they allow for generous Nashvillians and businesses to contribute what they can to help families in need.

Hart traces her passion for nutrition and food stability to a class project where she was assigned to eat on a food stamp budget for a week. She quickly realized that more nutritious foods, such as produce, tend to be more expensive than foods like rice and pasta. Seeing people struggle to find their next meal during the pandemic brought Hart back to the food stamp project.

“I was reminded of the anxiety of that experience,” Hart said. “I realized I wanted to find a way to take the burden off families, provide access to nutritious food, and help children establish healthy eating habits that would impact their health for years to come.”

With the help of students’ parents, Cole Elementary is now operating two units, providing easily accessible, nutritious food for students, their families and the entire community. Hart says accessibility reduces the stigma that many face when seeking help, and she hopes to expand the project to other schools and communities in the future.