Volunteers help serve lunch at the GMHC kitchen.

Feeding Body and Spirit: GMHC’s Dining Room Reopens

“The energy there is wonderful. Folks are happy to be back and happy to see each other.”

In welcome news to clients, GMHC has reopened our dining room for lunch twice a week, after having to suspend this beloved service due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The energy there is wonderful. Folks are happy to be back and happy to see each other,” said GMHC Meals and Nutrition Director Melissa Gallanter.

Most of GMHC’s clients experience some level of food insecurity, so the lunches provide nutritious meals – and also social connection. “The space of the dining room is the heart of GMHC,” Gallanter said. “All of our clients deserve a dignified, safe, comforting, and delicious social space.”

Participation has grown rapidly since June, when the agency started serving lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. At first, staff and volunteers were serving 70 clients on average for each meal. By early August, that had increased to 100, with 120 clients on the busiest day.

“We’re starting with two days a week, because we weren’t sure how many clients we’d be serving. For now, that makes the most sense in terms of cost,” Gallanter said. Her aim is to increase that to five days a week, as budgeting permits.

Gallanter joined GMHC’s meals and nutrition team in August 2020, just a few months after the COVID-19 shutdowns started. To keep clients and the community fed, she said, GMHC quickly adapted by providing grocery vouchers and starting a weekly Grab n’ Go meal bag pickup program – but people missed being able to see each other in person.

“COVID-19 was isolating for everyone, but especially for our clients. Many are immunocompromised, which increased their need to stay home to keep safe,” Gallanter said. “Everyone was feeling the void, the missing piece.”

A Space of Belonging 

“There is a shared sense of understanding in our dining room,” Gallanter explained. “Our clients may not feel like they belong in many places in this world, because of stigma about parts of their identity, but they can walk into our dining room and know they belong.”

“There are a lot of hard things happening in our clients’ lives,” she added. “In that space, I see their shoulders drop.”

“In the dining room, our clients are part of a community. They can walk in without knowing who they’ll see and connect with someone new or people they haven’t seen in a while—then end up chatting for an hour,” she said. “That is something very special about GMHC—might I say, magical.”

Clients who come by for a meal also can ask staff for help with other concerns, whether it’s legal questions, health care, benefits, or mental health counseling. “We connect them with the services they need,” Gallanter said.

“It’s a space that’s important to folks,” she said. “This week, one client told me: ‘The dining room is GMHC for me.’”

Combating Food Insecurity 

Gallanter estimated that at least two-thirds of GMHC’s clients coming by the dining room for meals are experiencing some level of food insecurity. For new GMHC clients in 2022, 69% were food insecure at intake.

“This might be the only hot meal a client has in a day,” she said. So far, popular meals have been BBQ chicken with smoked collard greens and mac n’ cheese; and turkey (or lentil) meatloaf with mashed potatoes and vegetables.

Clients’ need for GMHC’s Meals and Nutrition program has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began over three years ago, Gallanter said. “Our waitlist for our long-term nutrition programs is longer and our monthly food pantry is busier.”

What’s more, clients lost supplemental federal SNAP (food stamp) benefits in March that were instituted in response to COVID-19, after Congress cut the funding. “But folks are telling me that prices are still high, and they’re still struggling,” Gallanter said.

For that reason, GMHC is continuing the Grab n’ Go program on a monthly basis. All GMHC clients can pick up a bag of shelf-stable groceries three days a week at our office at 307 W. 38th Street.

Separately, 400 low-income clients living with HIV are enrolled in GMHC’s long-term, monthly Keith Haring Food Pantry. In addition to shelf-stable food, they can select dairy items, fresh produce and proteins like chicken or tuna. They also receive nutrition counseling.

Volunteering to Serve 

Many clients coming by for lunch are long-term HIV survivors in their 50’s and 60’s, who may struggle with isolation, Gallanter said, so socializing in a welcoming and nurturing space is important for their wellbeing. Younger clients often come by for a hot meal after enrolling in other GMHC programs.

“The lunches are important for the nutritious food – I’m a registered dietitian, so that is in the forefront of my mind – but it’s also that social connection,” she emphasized. “We call it a dining room for a reason. It’s meant to be a safe and dignified space where our clients feel fully taken care of.”

That’s where GMHC’s wonderful volunteers come in. The Meals and Nutrition program is leanly staffed, with just Gallanter and a part-time team member, Nicholas Byrne. To help with meal service, she relies on long-term staff member Donna Pine and corporate volunteer groups who come by from 11:15 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“Our volunteers have a great time and feel really satisfied with their time with us,” she said. Often, a company’s LGBTQ+ affinity group members will volunteer, she added, so “they feel connected to us before stepping in the door.”

A plethora of corporate teams have already volunteered for meal service since June, including: Ashurst, Bank of America, Citi, Empire BlueCross BlueShield, FreeWheel, Good Apple, JLL Commerical Real Estate, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, Mayer Brown, Pfizer, Salesforce, and the University of Georgia Alumni Group.

Building Momentum 

The lunch program is evolving, as more clients start to attend, Gallanter said. One immediate goal is to be able to serve second helpings consistently. Gallanter explained that she can only offer seconds if there is enough food for everyone still in the dining room about halfway through the meal service. Since the number of clients is growing, that is not always possible. 

“We’re excited to be back, our clients and volunteers are happy and engaged, and the dining room has great energy,” she said. “Clients ask me at every lunch when we’re returning to five days a week, so going forward, we hope to be able to continue our expansion.” 

Please consider supporting GMHC’s meal service through our Summer Meals Challenge. For more information, contact Gallanter at melissag@gmhc.org.