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Inspired student Sarayna Schock delivers produce program

A photo of Sarayna Shock at Beaver Stadium

Sarayna Schock

When Sarayna Schock sets her mind to something, there’s no stopping her. The second year Penn State College of Medicine student shows an admirable level of dedication to service while achieving her own goals. Her personal story drives her to help others with similar challenges and to make a difference in her community, including serving with LionCare, the student-run medical clinic in downtown Harrisburg, and abroad in Zambia with the College’s Global Health Scholars program.

To get there required four years in the Air Force and two years in the reserves. Serving in the military was the way Schock funded her medical education. Enlisting, however, required some changes.

“I had to lose weight to join the Air Force to pay for school,” Schock said. “I was overweight growing up as a kid. My parents didn’t really have the money, logistics or where-with-all to cook healthy meals, which wasn’t their fault. So I learned about diet and exercise and I lost 10 pounds to be able to meet the criteria to join the military.”

Her time in the Air Force strengthened her desire to be a doctor. Helping her mother, a nurse, take care of her grandfather with cardiovascular disease when she was younger planted that seed.

“The military really stressed that this is the right calling for me,” Schock said. “In Iraq, I witnessed the value and frailty of human life. Then when I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan as a military police officer, I witnessed some people survive the most horrific of accidents while others lost their lives unexpectedly in low-speed crashes or from inconspicuous trauma. The human body is really fascinating to me.”

It was while in Okinawa that she also learned more about the value of a good diet.

“Okinawa is a famous blue zone for longevity,” she said. “They eat little meat and a lot of vegetables, a little bit of fish, a lot of rice. It was interesting to compare our diets.”

Those experiences prepared Schock for her latest endeavor to help others: ProduceRx. The concept is simple. Doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants prescribe fresh produce to patients who can use the prescription to get reduced-rate fruits and vegetables. Participating providers determine eligibility, with underserved populations and high risk patients for conditions like diabetes and heart disease being primary targets. A newsletter and videos provide recipes and tips to healthy eating.

“My own experiences showed me how nutrition can improve health and aspects of life,” she said. “I’m trying to bring that to other people who are like me; learned from my past experience of growing up obese and the weight-associated diseases that came with it.”

So when a Health Systems class assignment required students to design a solution to a healthcare problem, she started brainstorming how to bring to Penn State a version of a program in Houston she read about previously called Farmacy. That assignment was in early February.

She discussed her idea with Dr. Danny George, associate professor of medical humanities and by late March took her idea to College and Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center leadership who backed her concept. A grant from the hospital’s Association of Faculty and Friends is funding a pilot study to determine the feasibility of such a program large scale. It’s currently available through six Medical Center providers during the pilot.

Her vision is to not only supply the community with fresh produce, but to also reconnect it with local growers.

“I wanted to get local farmers involved because I believe we’ve gotten away from where our food is coming from,” Schock explained. “It’s all this mass production and we don’t know, for example, where the apples we eat are grown, so we’ve lost this connection.”

To this end, ProduceRx works with community-supported agriculture, known as a CSA. Through a CSA, consumers purchase shares in a farm’s harvest season and receive weekly boxes of produce. Produce is delivered to pick-up sites throughout the region. ProduceRx has partnered with Strites Orchard in Harrisburg. Boxes are subsidized to cost only $10 and feature six to eight types of produce each week.

“We bring the produce to the patients,” Schock said. “Our patients have said that if you only have $10 to spend on fresh produce, and you buy berries that go bad in a few days, you’re not going to buy berries again. By using freshly picked fruits and vegetables from the area, the produce can last up to two weeks. That helps people enjoy fruits and vegetables and be more connected to local farmers.”

But access to healthier food options isn’t the only piece to the puzzle.

“Research has shown that just providing access isn’t enough,” she said. “So my idea at the beginning was education by way of YouTube videos and printed newsletters.”

Weekly newsletters provide medical topics from doctors and recipes and nutritional information from dieticians and medical students. Education is important because physicians may not have time in a visit to go as in depth as they’d like with eating tips.

“From a provider’s standpoint, you only have so much time with a patient,” Schock explained. “My pediatrician had time to address the acute issue, but not the underlying chronic issue. I can remember he would say ‘make sure you are getting plenty of fruits and vegetables and green leafy vegetables.’ We would go home and it’d be like a can of peas and artificially sweetened applesauce. That was just from us not having the knowledge.”

Monthly videos add to that knowledge by helping viewers learn more about produce to be comfortable preparing it.

A photo of Produce RX staff being filmed preparing a recipe

Produce Rx includes a periodic video with demonstrations on how to cook with produce.

“The produce aisle can be intimidating if you’re not familiar with the different foods,” Schock said. “I wasn’t familiar with many vegetables. I didn’t know what an eggplant was until I went into the military. If you’re not familiar, you’re not going to buy an eggplant, but if it comes to you and you figure out what to do with it, you can then incorporate it into the diet.”

The program is expanding to LionCare.

“One of my classmates volunteers as a patient navigator and while the students are out discussing with the attending physician, she goes into the exam room and talks with the patient about services available — for example Medicaid or child care,” Schock said. “She’ll now ask if they need help accessing nutrition.”

It may also expand to local food banks through collaboration with the Office of Community Relations.

Because of her interest in the link between agriculture and healthcare, she’s contacted the state Department of Agriculture to look at funding opportunities.

“If this model is replicable at other health care institutions, it improves health of the patients, is easier for providers and it improves the local tax base by increasing awareness of CSAs and more people buying into farms,” Schock said. “It’s a win-win for Pennsylvania.”

Originally from Camp Hill, a neighboring town to Hershey, Schock is happy to be serving her community and to be attending medical school close to home.

“This is my community,” she said. “It’s really nice to stay here and know the area when I talk to patients. For the first time in my life I feel I’m in a position to impact others positively. In the military, you have all these people above you and you’re confined to your own job. But here, I have faculty and resources, people that have helped me write grants and work with the institutional review board. At Penn State, if you have an idea you can go for it.”

The program has a Facebook page here

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