Physician Assistant Curriculum Extends Beyond the Classroom through Volunteerism and Alternative Medicine at MANNA

Salus PA Students at MANNA
On four separate mornings during the month of April, the University’s Physician Assistant (PA) students, faculty and staff members chopped vegetables, made sandwiches and delivered hundreds of diet-specific meals to those in need alongside members of the Metropolitan AIDS Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance (better known as MANNA). What may seem like purely a volunteer effort is actually part of the students’ curriculum.

The students’ work at MANNA is a component to their Integrative Medicine didactic coursework - complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, CAM is a group of diverse medical and healthcare systems and practices not typically considered part of conventional medicine. More than 30 percent of adults and 12 percent of children use these integrative methods in conjunction with mainstream approaches, NIH reports. 

“A part of the Integrative Medicine course focuses on how nutrition can promote health, and the role it plays in enhancing the quality of life for those with chronic illnesses,” Donna Agnew, director of the University’s PA program, said. “This service learning project at MANNA enabled our students to give back to medically fragile members of our community.”

Common CAM therapies include acupuncture, meditation, the use of natural products, and abiding by special dietary guidelines – one of the main facets of MANNA’s mission. Founded in 1990 by seven members of the city’s First Presbyterian Church, MANNA was originally formed to provide meals to people dying of HIV/AIDS at a time when the ignorance and stigma associated with the disease was high. But for the past decade, the organization has been serving individuals with other critical illnesses such as cancer, renal and cardiac disease, as well as diabetes.

Salus PA Students at MANNAFirst-year PA student, Taylor Jones, described just how specific the meals they prepared for each individual client are. “They package meals according to what people can eat in their diet, taking into consideration conditions like diabetes or other diet-restricting diseases,” she said. Fellow first-year PA student Daria Okhrimtchouk explained the effects customized meals had on recipients. “When you’re a volunteer ‘on the ground,’ you can trace the impact of the meal services all the way from putting together a custom-made sandwich to personally handing over a variety of nutritious foods into the client’s hands,” she said.

MANNA’s CAM-based mission of providing nutritious, diet-specific meals was further explored in a study conducted by the OMG Center for Collaborative Learning. Participants reported overall health benefits such as increased energy, improved weight, and an increased tolerance for certain medications.

The 30-person staff at MANNA enjoys a full commercial kitchen within the 20th street facility that has undergone extensive renovations through the years, as well as a fleet of trucks to deliver prepared food for the hardest-to-serve consumers. For each morning the group of 13 students and two faculty/staff members volunteered on-site, after orientation, they assisted in the preparation and packaging of meals for several hours before making deliveries to clients’ homes.

MANNA - Salus StudentsDaria was pleased to see the real-world ramifications a CAM-based program can have on participants.

“It was much more than a chance to step out of the classroom – it was an opportunity to see the populations we will be treating as future clinicians in their own communities, and to consider various challenges (dietary and many others) facing them once they step out of our office,” Daria said. 

MANNA serves sick individuals in southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey three meals a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. In the course of a month, the on-the-go organization delivers 95,000 meals to those in desperate need of nourishment and comfort, completely free of charge.

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