Hua Xing Yang and Lan Le.

Third-year medical students Hua Xing Yang, left, and Lan Le are among dozens of Jacobs School volunteers delivering meals to families in need.

Trainees Deliver Meals to Families During Pandemic

Published April 10, 2020

With the COVID-19 pandemic halting normal life across Western New York, medical students and residents from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences have been delivering meals to food-insecure children in the Buffalo public school district.

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Urgent Need Leads to Volunteer Effort

James K. Lukan, MD, clinical associate professor of surgery, started the volunteer effort, which has been ongoing since March 16.

“The idea came when the Buffalo Public Schools announced they would be closing for some period of time,” says Lukan, who directs the general surgery residency and is also a physician with UBMD Surgery.

“Understanding that many public school students depend upon the schools‘ meal programs, I reached out to some district contacts with whom we are trying to organize an after-school reading program.”

Lukan’s contacts put him in touch with the district’s nutrition services department. Although the district has 28 schools open where families can pick up meals, many families have barriers that prevent them from doing so, including transportation issues and work conflicts.

Finding a New Way to Help Community

After learning of the urgent need to get food to these at-risk families, Lukan sent a recruitment email to his third-year students. The next day, some 20 to 25 volunteers came forth to help.

“When we were told we were not going to be able to participate in our clerkships, we found ourselves with a lot of time on our hands,” says Anne Stoklosa, a student who became one of the volunteer effort’s organizers after responding to the email the first day.

“It’s a way for us to help the best that we could,” she says.

The first week, the volunteers went out every weekday. But the student organizers and the staff at nutrition services then determined it would be more efficient – and less risky to everyone’s health – to limit their trips to twice a week.

Since then, every Monday and Wednesday, the volunteers travel to the nutrition services building on East Delavan Avenue in Buffalo. There, district employees bring boxed meals to the students’ cars, making sure to limit contact.

Breakfasts, Lunches for School-Age Children

Armed with a list of addresses and phone numbers, the students head out to the community. When they arrive at each home, they call the adult in the house to let them know the meals can be found on the porch.

The boxes are packed with breakfasts and lunches for all the school-age children in each family. On Monday, there is food for two days; on Wednesday, there’s enough for three days. Typical offerings include milk, fruits, vegetables, bread items and proteins, says Bridget O’Brien Wood, director of child nutrition services for the Buffalo Public Schools.

O’Brien Wood notes that the volunteers are delivering approximately 450 meals each week.

“The students have been amazing,” she says. “They are providing food to people who would otherwise fall through the cracks. We really appreciate their flexibility, support and conscientiousness.”

List of Families, Volunteers Grows Each Week

Third-year medical student Natalia Crenesse-Cozien, who is another organizer, estimates that meals were distributed to approximately 90 families the week of March 23. She says the list of families changes and grows every week.

Likewise, the list of volunteers grows each week; Stoklosa says the number is up to about 50. In addition to medical students and residents, participants include the trainees’ housemates, friends, siblings and romantic partners.

Stoklosa hopes the effort “takes on a life of its own,” so that when the medical students are able to return to their classes and clerkships, the meals will still get distributed.

Additionally, two UB students are volunteering at one neighborhood school. There, they act as “go-betweens“ to minimize contact between district staff and the public.