Out in the Bay: Project Open Hand: 'Meals with Love' then and now

  • by Eric Jansen
  • Thursday September 8, 2022
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Volunteers from Recology portion beans into smaller quantities for individual clients in Project Open Hand's warehouse. Photo: Marcus Tolero, Project Open Hand<br>
Volunteers from Recology portion beans into smaller quantities for individual clients in Project Open Hand's warehouse. Photo: Marcus Tolero, Project Open Hand

In 1985, Ruth Brinker, a grandmother and retired food service worker at the time, started cooking and delivering nutritious meals to San Francisco gay men debilitated by HIV/AIDS. Over the following decades, Project Open Hand, the nonprofit she founded, became a model for similar organizations worldwide, and its mission expanded to serve people with other serious illnesses and to serve Alameda County, and more recently, Contra Costa County, in addition to San Francisco.

"It was my very first experience with AIDS," Brinker said later about why she started delivering healthy meals to neighbors. "I had just watched a friend die, and I was absolutely shattered to see how quickly he became unable to care for himself. I began worrying about all the other people in the city that I knew had AIDS and wondering how they were fending. And I just felt compelled to start a meal service for them."

Brinker died in 2011 at age 89; we hear her voice from "The Ruth Brinker Story," a short documentary released in May, on this week's Out in the Bay Queer Radio + Podcast. Also on Out in the Bay are Project Open Hand CEO Paul Hepfer and Lee Jewell, a Project Open Hand client and former board member, who speak about the organization's history, current operations, and its Dining Out for Life East Bay event coming up later this month.

Today, Project Open Hand, whose motto is "Meals with Love," delivers more than 200 bags of groceries and 2,500 life-saving meals daily to people with HIV, cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other complex illnesses, and to those experiencing social isolation or aging-related health challenges.

Project Open Hand is also a founding partner of the Food is Medicine Coalition, a nationwide collaborative that supports research and advocates for honoring nutritious food as a foundation of medical care. The coalition's "Food is Medicine" philosophy has influenced health care across the U.S.

Part of that philosophy goes back to the 1980s, when Brinker said many people were dying not directly from AIDS, but from malnutrition. Some weren't getting enough food; many weren't getting food that was right for them.

As CEO Hepfer explains, nutritional needs vary greatly and depend on particular illnesses and situations. "We learned a lot about food insecurity during COVID-19," said Hepfer. "Many Americans were not only food insecure, but also nutrition insecure."

Social isolation is another health risk, said Hepfer and Jewell, especially as people get older and their medical conditions become more disabling. Jewell, who serves on San Francisco's HIV Community Planning Council, said social isolation affects LGBTQ folks more than the general population.

Even today in San Francisco, "people are still stigmatized because of their HIV status, because they're gay, they're trans, or they're gender-nonconforming," said Jewell. Although this likely affects older people who grew up in less tolerant times more than their younger peers, "it surprises me how many people testing positive today still hold onto that idea of what it is to be sick ... and it informs how they interact with other people, and contributes to the isolation and feeling of loneliness" that has been compounded by COVID since early 2020.

The nonprofit's Dining Out for Life East Bay takes place Thursday, September 29. Diners can find a list of restaurants donating a share of lunch and dinner sales on the event's website. Restaurants can still join at the same website.

Hear more from Project Open Hand's Paul Hepfer and Lee Jewell — and clips from "The Ruth Brinker Story" — on this week's Out in the Bay. It airs 6:30 p.m. Thursday, September 8, on KSFP, 102.5 FM San Francisco only; 5 p.m. Friday, September 9, on KALW, 91.7 FM SF Bay Area-wide; and at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, September 10, on KSFP, 102.5 FM San Francisco only. It is always available on Out in the Bay's website.

Eric Jansen is founding host and executive producer of Out in the Bay Queer Radio + Podcast. Learn more and listen here.

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