Hayley Cunningham, a third-year medical student at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, sits across a table. She says she wants to do her best to help people find health — wherever they are in life.

A year ago, she saw a need for students in the School of Medicine to better understand the contexts of patients with whom they were interacting. The idea for UNC Flourish was born.

“Patients were not getting the support they needed to be successful,” Cunningham said.

Jill Brown, Director of Nutrition Education for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, described the objective of the program succinctly.

“It’s an opportunity for medical students to understand barriers to families trying to prepare healthy foods,” she said.

A health education program seemed to be the answer. At first, Cunningham wanted to design her own curriculum to educate the public on nutrition, but Brown suggested the organization use a curriculum already in place.

“The more we can work with what’s already going on in the community, the better,” Cunningham said of the decision to partner with IFFS.

The Inter-Faith Food Shuttle is a national partner with the organization Share Our Strength, which aims to keep children from being hungry, and has free access to their materials, which include Cooking Matters classes to encourage healthy cooking at home and Cooking Matters at the Store, a grocery store tour to educate participants on how to make healthy choices while grocery shopping.

The Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, which partners with UNC Flourish to provide public health education, has a warehouse in Durham.

“The whole point is building self-efficacy,” Brown said of those two curricula.

At first, professors at the School of Medicine were apprehensive about the potential success of UNC Flourish, Cunningham said. She said some thought it would be too big a challenge to take on, but since then, many have assisted her with finding funding and connecting her to resources.

The Inter-Faith Food Shuttle is the main resource for the young organization. Brown said the members of UNC Flourish learned that Cooking Matters classes take a lot of planning and commitment and time, and medical school students do not usually have an excess of time on their hands.

But in contrast, the Cooking Matters at the Store classes are an easier way to help the public while also promoting nutrition education, because they require less preparation.

While Brown says the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle would be able to function without the volunteers of UNC Flourish, she does say they are able to provide more classes because of the extra help.

The organization acts as a point of access between the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s work and the student populations of both the School of Medicine and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Two of these students include the two new co-presidents of the organization, Padam Kumar and Catherine Baird. Both were interested in public health and nutrition and were looking for ways to involve themselves in the greater Chapel Hill community when they found UNC Flourish or had it recommended to them.

Kumar, a junior Nutrition and History double major, said he is interested in all aspects of public health and Baird, a junior Public Health Advocacy and Dramatic Arts double major, has always been interested in food and nutrition.

Kumar and Baird both want to see UNC Flourish grow.

“In terms of the number of students we have as volunteers and people in the community we’re partnering with,” Baird said.

Kumar said he sees the organization as a way for students to take advantage of hands-on opportunities to work in the community.

One of Cunningham’s original ideas was to begin one-on-one wellness coaching, which would be follow-up sessions with participants from the cooking classes and grocery store tours.

Both she and Baird think an emphasis on wellness coaching would encourage long-lasting relationships with members of the community.

Brown, too, emphasized relationships and partnerships in her work, though in the context of larger, more corporate partnerships, since the IFFS works across the state of North Carolina.

In this case, the partnership with UNC Flourish is mutually beneficial, because both organizations are able to work toward a common goal.

Cunningham emphasized the difficulty lower-budget families face to make healthy choices, and Brown also commented on the levels of complexity within the issue of connecting people to healthier food choices.

This is not a new problem, and UNC Flourish is not a new solution, she said.

There are programs in place to educate, and UNC Flourish is a small part of a larger machine attempting to do the work of change in the Chapel Hill community and beyond.

Students, like Kumar, who participate in UNC Flourish, are able to connect with children and adults in cooking classes. Kumar says he saw children with no skills learn how to cook after six weeks and saw joy on their faces and those of their families’.

This organization gives students at UNC-Chapel Hill the chance to involve themselves in the community, but it also makes students aware of the work already being done by organizations like the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle.

The problems, and the work to fix them, existed before UNC Flourish, and they will continue to exist. Students are an important part of the system, but more help is always needed, Brown said.

“I could double my staff and not miss a beat.”

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