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ABC Food as Medicine Program Introduces Interns to Natural Healing

For almost two years, the American Botanical Council’s (ABC) Education Coordinator Jenny Perez has directed the Food as Medicine and Garden Apothecary projects as essential components of ABC’s internship programs for dietetic and pharmacy students, respectively. The programs are conducted in conjunction with Texas State University’s Dietetics Program and the University of Texas’s College of Pharmacy. Upon Jenny’s arrival at ABC, she collaborated with ABC Special Projects Director Gayle Engels to develop the curriculum.

“We were just trying to figure out a way of tying in ABC’s extensive herb gardens to the internships,” said Perez (oral communication, June 16, 2014). “It’s one of our most important assets here…. It was a way we could connect the student to the garden and the research to the food.”

ABC’s Food as Medicine project is based on a course Perez taught at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, called “Herbs and Food.” She challenges students to study plants from a more creative and scientific perspective, looking beyond conventional nutrients like macro- and micronutrients to other bioactive compounds and their therapeutic properties. “We also focus on the reason the students themselves chose the path of being a dietitian,” said Perez. “The typical rotation includes a focus on food security, organic versus conventional food production, why people have such a limited diet, and how we can try to change that…. I think it broadens their ability to understand plants.”

Dietetic interns join the ABC team for a two-week rotation as part of a series of required internships designed to expose the students to a variety of potential jobs in their field. Pharmacy interns choose these rotations as an elective, and they come to ABC for six weeks. “Most of the pharmacy interns who have studied at ABC want to be community pharmacists so they need to know about those brown bottles with dropper tops and the variety of dietary and herbal supplements that are out there that people self-select,” said Perez. “If the healthcare provider has no understanding of those supplements, herbal medicine is not going to have a place at the table.”

“It made me a more holistic practitioner, that I’m better at seeing a bigger picture to health,” said Anne Semrau, who came to ABC as a dietetic intern in early June from Texas State University (email, June 20, 2014). “The most interesting part was learning to think of the secondary metabolites as being just as significant to health as the other nutrients. The most challenging was trying to understand the chemistry! …. I really appreciate the science-based aspect at ABC.”

The Food as Medicine project encompasses botany, ethnobotany, horticulture, and basic kitchen medicine. Interns study the origins of a specific plant that is in season in Central Texas at the time of their rotation and design a simple consumer handout as well as a more complex, clinician-oriented community nutrition document about the therapeutic aspects of the plant’s constituents.

Students are encouraged to get “back to the roots” (“Pun intended,” Perez said with a laugh.) of health and medicine and spend most of their rotation out in ABC’s medicinal gardens and greenhouse, occasionally making side trips to farmer’s markets and meeting with local herbalists. Many of the students have little to no background in herbal medicine or gardening, which Perez perceives as vital but frequently absent skills. Without a basic understanding of how soil, seeds, and plants are connected, she is concerned that the information they learn will be less meaningful and complete.

For their final project, the students deliver a short presentation on their chosen plant and prepare a simple dish that features it. The presentations include the interns’ handouts and information on their selected plant’s nutritional and therapeutic qualities, so they must research and analyze the current scientific literature on their topic. Previous Food as Medicine projects have highlighted strawberries (Fragaria vesca, Rosaceae), green onions (Allium fistulosum, Amaryllidaceae), and butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata, Cucurbitaceae). “It’s an interactive show-and-tell, taste-and-smell experience for everyone,” said Perez. With simple adapted recipes, the students showcase not only the healing benefits of their plant, but also how to make it appealing and relevant to their audience.

“I would read stuff [about herbs] that I came across and I always thought it was interesting, but [I] really [had] no prior knowledge,” wrote Semrau, who researched and presented on anise seed (Pimpinella anisum, Apiaceae) for her project. “[Now] I am drinking different kinds of herbal teas and seeking out new ones for therapeutic benefits. I am trying new foods, like gobo (Arctium lappa, Asteraceae) — I always thought that burdock was just an obnoxious weed.” She added that the internship experience gave her an enhanced understanding of health and medicine.

Perez says that she hopes ABC will put the students’ handouts and community nutrition documents through its editorial peer-review process and make them available online as part of ABC’s educational content. She believes that the information will enlighten readers about the unexpected benefits plants have to offer, encouraging creativity, seasonal eating, and passing up processed food in favor of fresh produce. “I like to say that every plant has a story, and every plant needs an advocate,” said Perez. “We co-evolved with these plants and they’re here to help us out.”

—Hannah Bauman