A few months ago, my friend Lisa Chionis (M2) messaged Morgan Bradford (M2) and me with a link to an Instagram post by @foodgatherers asking for volunteers at their annual Farm Project. The three of us had been working together on a culinary medicine elective for the past year, but because of the pandemic, we had never actually met each other in person. Volunteering at a farm sounded like a perfect way to finally spend an afternoon “in real life” together!
Food Gatherers is a local food bank and food rescue program in Washtenaw County, where Ann Arbor is located. The Farm Project is a collaboration between Food Gatherers, the Mindful Eating Coalition, and Bill Schmid (“Farmer Bill”), who volunteers his property as a space to grow fresh produce. Most of the produce is donated directly to Food Gatherers, and some produce is sold at his roadside stand to raise money for an additional cash donation. The project is run entirely by volunteers who plant seeds, weed, mulch, water, and harvest the crops!
On our first day, Lisa, Morgan and I showed up and got right to work on weeding the patch of corn together. As we made our way up and down the rows, we soon realized that we were the youngest volunteers there (probably by at least 20 to 30 years)! Despite the age gap, we felt right at home and had an incredible afternoon together.
Over the summer, I kept coming back to volunteer about once a week at the farm. My brother, an undergraduate at Michigan, also started joining me regularly, and this became our usual Monday evening ritual. I loved that we had this time to hang out with each other in the middle of our busy schedules. I also had a lot of fun getting to know the other “regulars” volunteering. We’d all swap stories about our lives, and I particularly loved hearing the ones about their grandkids’ latest shenanigans!
The last few months of my M4 year have been quite busy. I recently completed rotations in Hematology/Oncology and the ICU, and I’m now studying for my emergency medicine shelf exam and writing my residency applications. At the end of a long day, it has been so rejuvenating to take a break and spend a few hours volunteering outside in the sunshine and fresh air. There’s something so therapeutic about getting down in the dirt and plucking out those pesky weeds. Plus, you wouldn’t believe what a great full-body workout gardening can be with all the lifting and squatting! Week by week, the little seedlings that we planted in May took root and sprouted into magnificent stalks of corn, huge heads of cabbage, and all kinds of juicy tomatoes. I felt amazed by how much growth had taken place every week!
I’ve really loved my time at the Farm this summer. I encourage you to continue your hobbies and the things that “nourish” you while in medical school. I found it quite special to be able to combine my interests in gardening and nutrition, especially in the form of an important service project that is serving our community. As of September 1, we have already donated $3,000 and over 850 pounds of fresh produce to Food Gatherers. There is plenty more work to do as this is now peak tomato season. They just keep coming, so it’s going to be all hands on deck!
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Sangini Tolia is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Michigan and a proud lifelong Michigander. She is applying for residency in internal medicine and is passionate about nutrition and women’s health. She also loves jigsaw puzzles, playing badminton, and sampling Ann Arbor’s many bubble tea and coffee shops. Find her on Twitter at @sanginitolia!