While the UNLV Food Pantry was launched to address the all-too-common issue of food insecurity within the campus community, administrators soon realized it could have an even wider impact.
By locating the food pantry right alongside the UNLV Nutrition Center, the School of Integrated Health Sciences turned the space into a multi-use site for evidence-based learning. But the lessons didn’t stop with nutrition majors. The facility mixes together students across the disciplines to demonstrate how the health professions can better collaborate to improve care.
In November, the center began inviting in future doctors from the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine to learn alongside graduate nutrition students and cook together in the Nutrition Center’s teaching kitchen. Jointly, the students work on medical cases as part of their coursework.
“The students are working together in solving patient problems, whether it be diabetes or GI diseases or all the different topics that we cover,” said nutrition sciences professor Laura Kruskall, founding director of the Nutrition Center.
It’s a model that is in line with UNLV’s Top Tier strategic plan. One pillar is to enhance community wellbeing through its academic health center, which recognizes that interprofessional education and collaborative practice is essential to providing the best patient care. A patient in a hospital could have a team of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, dietitians, physical therapists, and speech pathologists because many diseases and conditions require that kind of interdisciplinary approach, Kruskall said.
In March, the medical school’s Anne Weisman brought her integrative medicine class over to the Food Pantry and the Nutrition Center to focus on the kidney and learn to prepare recipes with herbs and spices beneficial for renal health.
“Somebody who’s highly trained in nutrition can work with a physician to help them understand what foods would be best for patients as well as how we want to think about food,” Weisman said. “Food brings us together. The collaboration with nutrition and medicine creates more opportunities to promote health and healing.”
Weisman notes that nutrition, important in all stages of life, generally is not among the top priorities in medical schools. Yet, “food is our first medicine. It’s critical,” Weisman said. “The curriculum in medicine is really crowded, there’s so much to learn. Our current system is disease-focused instead of health-focused. By bringing nutrition into our curriculum, we are creating opportunities for our students to practice using food as medicine.”
The lack of collaborative training is also lamentable, Kruskall said. In the old-fashioned education model, students train separately in different disciplines and then, when they get out into the hospitals in that first supervised practice or residency experience, they don’t know what the other professions do.
“We’re bringing it down to the level of the students, so that the medical students see what we do. We can see what the medical students do,” Kruskall said. “And then hopefully, by the time they get out there in the hospitals with a real patient, they’ve already built some of that interdisciplinary communication. We’re very happy that UNLV is thinking progressively.”
Engaging Students Beyond the Health Professions
The unique proximity of the pantry and nutrition center allows other students to get hands-on experience, says Carmen Johnson, the food pantry’s coordinator. Her background is in social work, another important element in community health.
Nutrition sciences students have created handouts to help those using the food pantry understand how to store foods and what types of foods help with weight management and stress management, among other things. They’ve learned to design recipe cards and have produced videos on how to make nutritious meals from the ingredients found in the pantry.
“We have kinesiology intern students this semester,” Johnson said. “Part of their task is to help with those recipes and develop more informational fliers that we can give to guests.”
Communications students, business students and the College of Education’s Project F.O.C.U.S. students have all learned customer-service, planning, and organizational skills through the pantry, she said.
“When the communications class came in, we did a little food education, and I just pulled up research about food insecurities and the way that it impacted mental health. They did not know that. They were not aware,” Johnson said.
Next, Kruskall hopes to have film students help stream live cooking demonstrations.
“Interdisciplinary learning and interaction is one of our accreditation standards,” Kruskall said. “So it is something that is a requirement. [But] instead of just reading about it in a textbook, we find that it’s so much more effective to actually bring the students together, having them work together side by side.”