Mercer Medical Students Foster Community Engagement Through Healthy Living Initiative

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Students from Mercer University School of Medicine (MUSM) are using the knowledge they learn in the classroom to promote health and wellness in the community.

Market WEST 4Third-year medical student Ashley McNeal spearheaded the Mercer W.E.S.T. initiative, which brings together Mercer and members of the Macon-Bibb County community for fun, food and exercise every third Wednesday at Mulberry Market in Tattnall Square Park, just across Coleman Avenue from campus.

McNeal, a member of the Paul Ambrose Scholars Program to cultivate leadership and organizational skills in public health education, saw a need to bring attention to healthy food options for families in the community.

“I was looking at the things I could do for my Paul Ambrose Scholars project, and I realized this area is a food desert. There aren’t any grocery stores nearby; some people may drive 20 minutes to the nearest grocery store,” McNeal said.

McNeal partnered with Mulberry Market to bring awareness to the availability of healthy food at the community’s fingertips. The weekly market offers a variety of items for sale as well as double SNAP/EBT benefits.

Second-year medical student Kay Bush said W.E.S.T. stands for “Walk, Eat, Shop and Talk,” which is exactly what participants get to do. Different stations located throughout the market allow kids and parents to partake in a physical activity, eat a healthy snack, receive a $2 shopping voucher for produce and talk to medical students and professionals about healthy living.

Mercer W.E.S.T. also partners with Alexander II Math and Science Magnet School to engage students, teachers and families. Alex II’s fifth-grade classes have adopted this initiative as a yearlong STEM project and operate a “Health M Powers” taste station to introduce healthy snacks.

“A lot of people don’t realize the market is here,” McNeal said. “Families can get produce for cheap and meat for cheap. I wanted to try to make those connections for people so they see that they do have other options for food and to give them an opportunity to live healthy.”

Mercer W.E.S.T has also partnered with undergraduate students and marriage and family therapy graduate students, who volunteer to host different activities for kids in the community.

Dr. Keisha Callins, Joy McCann Endowed Professor and OB/GYN for Community Health Care Systems, serves as MUSM faculty mentor for this initiative. She said the market’s location near Mercer and Alexander II make the community engagement aspect extremely successful.

“It really is a unique concept to connect these three entities already located in the same area,” said Dr. Callins. “It is an amazing opportunity for parents to pick their kids up, come over, do an activity, shop and engage with future healthcare providers.”

Having the help of Mercer students from across the University’s campus has been a major help, McNeal said.

“I think it has been really good to get outside of the medical school and realize how many different aspects of Mercer there are and incorporate them all,” she said, adding that she is excited to see how the initiative transforms in the future.

“I hope that the program will keep growing,” McNeal said. “It’s been really nice to put the project in the hands of Alex II and to see how they’ve really taken it on. I hope that we can continue passing it down to medical students and undergrad students and really get people involved.”

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