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    Love in the Time of COVID-19

    By John-Manuel Andriote–

    Love is precisely what Ruth Brinker put into action in San Francisco, starting in 1985, when the retired food-service worker began cooking nutritious meals for seven of her neighbors who had AIDS and were malnourished because they couldn’t cook for themselves. Her deliveries of healthy food, a friendly smile, and a dose of neighborly love were the beginning of Project Open Hand. 

    Like the other nutrition agencies, Project Open Hand continues to serve people with HIV-AIDS, and has expanded its outreach to elders and people fighting cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and many other serious illnesses. Today the agency daily prepares 2,500 medically tailored meals and 200 bags of healthy groceries, and delivers them to clients throughout San Francisco and Almeida County—and that isn’t counting the increased calls for meals to feed people recovering at home from COVID-19.

    Marking Project Open Hand’s 35th anniversary this year, CEO Paul Hepfer told me that he took the job a year ago specifically because of Ruth Brinker’s legacy. “There are so many nonprofits in America that start for a number of reasons,” he said. “But when there’s a nonprofit organization that starts because of a need in the community—and the community rallies behind it and sustains it for 35 years? I thought, I have got to be a part of that. How could I not be part of something so valuable? We don’t have a lot of heroes these days, and she is one of mine.”

    Hepfer often thinks about Ruth Brinker and the simple kindness that gave birth to Project Open Hand. “When we got the first calls asking if we could provide care to people at home recovering from COVID-19,” he said, “it was like there was this voice in my head saying, ‘What would Ruth do in a situation like this?’ Clearly, she would have found a way to make this happen.”

    In the short-term, Hepfer said the agency is doing everything possible to “get out in front” and make sure people have food during the shelter-in-place crisis. This includes figuring out how to store 20,000 to 30,000 frozen meals. “Heaven forbid if we shut down in a couple of weeks,” he said. “How would we get the food to people?”

    For the longer term, the need will certainly be there but, as always, it will be about having the resources to meet the need. Hepfer mentions that the agency has experienced a difficult couple of years and budget deficits. But the hope is that health insurers will wake up to the fact that they can save a tremendous amount of money by reimbursing an organization like Project Open Hand to serve their clients at home rather than pay expensive medical bills.

    “I’m confident,” said Hepfer, “that having tighter relationships with health care companies, we’ll be able to grow to the demand, make sure our legacy clients have what they need, but also expand. We’re preparing to double or triple our meal production over the next few years.”

    John-Manuel Andriote’s most recent book is “Stonewall Strong: Gay Men’s Heroic Fight for Resilience, Good Health, and a Strong Community.” He writes the Stonewall Strong blog on resilience for “Psychology Today.” Please visit http://jmandriote.com/

    Published on June 25, 2020