When Food For Thought celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, leaders at the grassroots Sonoma County AIDS food bank decided it was time to broaden their outreach. While their original mission to feed people affected by HIV has not waned, they felt they were in a strong position to meet a growing need by expanding their services to help all people with critical illnesses who are in danger of malnutrition.
“If you get sick and you don’t have a caregiver or money, there’s nothing for you,” said Ron Karp, the nonprofit’s executive director. “It’s like where people with HIV and AIDS were back in the 1980s. They were literally dying of malnutrition in their own homes.”
Phase I of the new strategic plan was to provide clients with a free lunch served at Food for Thought’s Forestville offices. That program was launched in November, and plans call for an expansion of lunch from three to five days a week by the end of the year.
“Just being able to eat in a place where there are other people around helps people socialize and combat the isolation,” Karp said. “Also, we know people will get at least one good nutritious meal a week.”
Phase II started in mid-May, serving 50 clients outside of the HIV community. The six-month pilot program was launched in collaboration with the Santa Rosa Community Health Centers, the West County Health Centers and Sutter Hospital, which are referring people with the highest medical needs.
“We’ll be taking those patients, either coming right out of the hospital or people with critical, complex situations,” Karp said. “We’re not going to limit it to a specific disease.”
Karp said he expects the new clients to be primarily adults up to age 55, who do not have the benefit of other support systems such as Meals on Wheels, the Council on Aging program aimed at feeding seniors.
Food for Thought also has talked with other food agencies to explore opportunities to work together.
“As we expand, we are looking for more support in the community,” Karp said. “We’ve talked to the Redwood Empire Food Bank about making some of the food for the lunches we are serving.”
Food for Thought offers an array of services that include prepared meals for those who are unable to cook and a fresh grocery program that provides fruits, vegetables and proteins such as eggs and cheese, beef and chicken.
“If people have someone to cook for them, they might prefer the groceries,” Karp said. “We also have vitamins and nutritional counseling, cooking classes twice a month and free delivery anywhere in Sonoma County. We are really different from Ceres (Community Project) in that we serve people for as long as they need us, and we have both the meals and the groceries.”
Because there is no waiting list, Food for Thought can respond immediately.
An army of 600 volunteers work for the 26-year-old food bank, with drivers delivering groceries and meals on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons.
Karp said new clients will probably have the most common health problems, which include advanced diabetes, heart problems, cancer and kidney problems.
“Maybe it will be someone who has pneumonia, and they don’t have the strength to cook,” he said. “Or it could be people who just need food during their recovery for six to eight weeks.”
Food For Thought started in 1988 serving just 50 people and has grown substantially over the years to meet the community’s increasing and changing needs. Most of its funding comes from individuals and local businesses, plus four annual fundraisers: Dining Out for Life, the Western Sonoma County Spring Home & Garden Tour, Calabash and an Academy Awards party at the Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol.
Karp said that the food bank’s core clients — those suffering from AIDS caused by the HIV virus — will still be served, as their needs have never been on the decline. Even though medical treatments have come a long way, there is still no cure for AIDS.
“We serve more people with HIV every year,” he said. “In Sonoma County, there are 40 new infections every year. … It’s not a disease that anyone would want to have, especially the young people who weren’t around during the epidemic.”
Through the course of the pilot program, Food for Thought will collect data on what kind of people can best be served through nutrition, any patterns in the conditions they are dealing with and which serious illnesses respond best to nutritional help.
“We’re starting with six months, and we’re hoping to learn enough to go full steam ahead,” Karp said. “Food is always going to be important. It may not be curative, but if you don’t have it, it definitely will kill you.”