You think your night on kitchen duty is rough? Imagine preparing 19,000 meals a month, every last one of them meeting strict criteria established by dietitians and a taste-test panel. And that doesn't even include the Monday lunch...
That's precisely the task at hand for the workers in the state-of-the-art kitchen at Food Outreach, a nonprofit agency near Grand Center that provides nutritional support to men, women and children living with HIV/AIDS in order to enhance their quality of life. Last year alone, nearly 1,000 clients benefited from frozen meals prepared and packed by the agency's volunteers, bags of groceries from its food bank-like store, or a combination of both.
"Having both the frozen meals and the option of getting groceries to cook for themselves allows our clients a lot of flexibility in how they handle their own food needs," said Greg Lukeman, Food Outreach's executive director. "As this disease is changing, and people go on and off different drug cocktails, there are times when they're feeling pretty strong, and then times when those drug combinations wear off and they don't feel good at all. This way, they can go back and forth between frozen meals and cooking."
One way Lukeman and the small staff of the agency can monitor how clients are faring is through regular, face-to-face contact, which is one motivation behind the Monday lunch. Each Monday, clients and a friend or caregiver are invited to come to the building on Olive to be served a hot lunch in a restaurant-type setting. Although some clients live too far away or are not well enough to attend, the group usually averages around 50 hungry souls, and the gathering is a chance for people dealing with HIV/AIDS to have social interaction with each other. Over a recent lunch of a breaded chicken kabob, pasta shells with cream sauce, steamed broccoli and a strawberry tart, agency clients and staff mingled at long tables in the dining room, while a table of visitors learned about Food Outreach.
With just 37% of this year's budget coming from federal funds (through the Ryan White Care Act Title I), bringing in potential community donors to appreciate and perhaps fund the programs the organization offers is important. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that the demand for Food Outreach services will diminish anytime soon.
"We recently enrolled an infant in the program, which is both gratifying and sad," said Mary Sue Rosenthal, the director of operations. "It's heartbreaking to see such a young child affected by HIV/AIDS already, but at least we know that our services are known and are being used."
The latest figures available from the St. Louis Health Department show a caseload in the region of 1,928 reported HIV cases, of which nearly 65% are in the city itself. In the same area, there are 4,113 reported cases of AIDS, of which nearly 60% are in the city. Of new infections in the area, approximately 65% are among African-Americans, which roughly parallels the number of Food Outreach clients they comprise. Most of the clients are men, and most are between the ages of 25 and 44, although there are nearly 50 under 25 years old.
What's more, the issues facing those living with HIV/AIDS today are evolving from what they once were. With improvements in drug therapy, and an increased understanding of the role of nutrition in keeping people relatively healthy, infected individuals are living longer. However, the epidemic now affects more vulnerable populations, for whom the disease is just one problem in a panoply that includes finding transportation, getting or keeping a job, locating adequate childcare and so on. Food Outreach steps into that gap as both an emergency relief (for people who truly have no other source of nutritious food) and a quality-of-life improvement (perhaps allowing some clients to conserve their energy for meeting these other challenges).
Although the client base has grown significantly, from seven in 1988 to around 1,000 today, no one has ever been turned away without service. To become a client of the organization, a person must simply prove a diagnosis of HIV. The barriers to entry are kept purposefully low.
"The sooner we can get people in the door and get involved in their management of the disease, the better off they are in the long-run," said Lukeman.
Food Outreach is the only area organization focused just on meeting the nutritional needs of this population, and is always happy to receive donations and volunteer assistance. To find out more about how you can help and about upcoming events that benefit the organization, contact them at 314-652-FOOD.