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    Food Is Love and Food Is Medicine

    By Mark A. Ryle

    When you serve 19 million nutritious meals to seniors and critically ill neighbors in your community, you learn a thing or two along the way.

    At Project Open Hand, where we recently surpassed the 19 millionth meal served milestone, two lessons stand out:

    Food is love. And food is medicine.

    Our founder, Ruth Brinker, understood this, when in 1985, as San Francisco found itself at ground zero of a frightening and devastating epidemic called AIDS, she took it upon herself to prepare what she called meals with love to seven neighbors with AIDS who were far too frail to cook for themselves.

    Today, Project Open Hand has expanded its services beyond HIV/AIDS to include serving those with critical illnesses such as breast cancer and diabetes, as well as seniors and adults with disabilities fighting hunger.

    Project Open Hand is the city’s largest provider of congregate meals for seniors, serving healthy meals seven days a week at over 20 sites across San Francisco—including our graying LGBT community who meet and eat daily at the Castro Senior Center near Diamond and 18th Streets.

    Mario in the Mission

    As usual, our clients articulate it best.

    “Before Project Open Hand’s meals, I could barely walk. Now, I can dance,” says Mario, a client of our Wellness Program for more than 20 years. Mario’s quote and infectious smile has been celebrated across the city via busses and BART trains and billboards through our recent Food = Love outdoor awareness campaign.

    After being diagnosed with HIV, Mario lost well over 25 pounds and had major mobility issues. For a man known to own the strobe-lit dance floor at the N’Touch on Polk Street, he felt too drained and depressed to even think about food and groceries. These days, Mario not only looks forward to his weekly meetings with our registered dieticians—he spends extra energy as the lead volunteer in our Grocery Center in the Tenderloin.

    It’s the one-on-one relationships that Project Open Hand has with our community of clients, coupled with our unique model of serving nutritional meals tailored to the individual health needs of our clients, which makes our program so health and cost effective. Research has shown that Project Open Hand’s medically tailored meals increase an individual’s health and well-being.

    The Food Is Medicine Pilot study, published this year in the Journal of Urban Health, involved more than 50 San Francisco and Alameda County residents living with Diabetes, HIV/AIDS or dual diagnosis. HIV-positive clients who received healthy food and snacks for six months from Project Open Hand were more likely to adhere to their medication regiments, and they, along with clients with Type 2 Diabetes, were less depressed and less likely to make trade-offs between food and healthcare, according to researchers at UCSF.

    M.J. from Chicago

    The food as medicine manifests in food as love when you look into the eyes of folks like M.J., a life-long civil rights activist and member of the LGBT senior community. For the past ten years, M.J. has relied upon Project Open Hand’s senior meals program at the Curry Senior Center in the Tenderloin.

    “My case manager downstairs told me to come here,” says the Chicago native. “I had just been told that I have been disabled. My social security hadn’t started. I had to figure out some way to pay rent and some way to eat. All that happened and my case manager said, ‘well you can get at least one nutritious meal upstairs.’”

    That one meal a day now empowers M.J. to dedicate time and energy to walking her Tibetan terrier, Diva, and focus on her passion for photography. You can hear more about M.J.’s story through a special podcast and photo essay ( published on our website (

    Food Is Medicine Coalition

    At a time when seniors like Mario and M.J. are bombarded by news of possible cuts to senior services, Project Open Hand is more committed than ever to protecting their rights to obtaining healthy food. Project Open Hand is a proud founding partner of the Food Is Medicine Coalition (FIMC), an advocacy group of nonprofit food nutrition service providers. FIMC advances public policy that supports access to food and nutrition services for people with severe and or chronic illnesses.

    In April, I was part of a FIMC group that met with California legislators to urge them to fund the Medi-Cal Medically Tailored Meals Pilot Program. We advocated before the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Subcommittee on Health and Human Services for inclusion of the meals program in the upcoming state budget. Dr. Richard Pan, committee Chair, described the FIMC’s program as a “transformational approach” and “an investment that would lead to cost savings.” Whatever the outcome, we will continue to fight for the people’s right to secure healthy food and continue to serve, 365 days of the year, health-promoting and life-enhancing meals.

    Or, as Mario likes to put it:

    “Project Open Hand is Humanity 101. It’s what keeps me alive.”

    Mark A. Ryle, LCSW, is Project Open Hand’s Chief Executive Officer. Ryle leads California’s largest and most iconic nutrition agency serving more than 8,600 clients in the Bay Area. He spent the first 25 years of his career in corporate finance and private equity before he found his calling in social work.


    Dr. Marcy Adelman oversees the Aging in Community column. For her summary of current LGBT senior challenges and opportunities, please go to: