Food insecurity is one of the most common challenges facing GMHC’s consumers, especially those living with HIV. Many are low-income and struggle to meet the basic necessities of life.
“When people don’t know where their next meal will come from, their health may not be a priority,” said Josie Thiele, director of GMHC’s meals and nutrition program. “We want to make sure that our consumers don’t have to make a choice between food and their health needs.”
Meals and nutrition are a central component of GMHC’s comprehensive approach to protecting and supporting the health of its consumers. GMHC has identified a close correlation between food security and positive health outcomes in people living with HIV. A key measure is viral suppression, which indicates that someone is taking their HIV medicines regularly and cannot transmit the virus. Among GMHC consumers who have benefitted from the agency’s meals and nutrition program, 95 percent reported suppressed viral load compared to 77 percent of all people with HIV in New York City.
Over the last year, GMHC has evolved its meals and nutrition program to meet consumers’ needs while ensuring their health. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, GMHC’s congregate meals program served 300 consumers per day with lunch Mondays through Thursdays and dinner on Fridays. More than 400 consumers also had regular access to fresh and non-perishable food through the Keith Haring Food Pantry.
At the onset of the COVID pandemic last March, GMHC had to modify its meals and nutrition programs to deliver food to consumers at their homes and later to a Grab ‘n’ Go grocery pick-up program. Over the last year, GMHC has also provided fresh locally grown produce through the Nourish New York initiative. To date, these programs have provided more than 131,000 meals to GMHC consumers and others in need regardless of HIV status.
“Food insecurity was an issue for many people during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Thiele. “We knew that we had to find innovative ways to continue our meals and nutrition program. Our clients depended on us.”
For the last several months, GMHC has been distributing groceries each Wednesday through the Grab ‘n’ Go program, which is available to anyone in need regardless of HIV status. That program is now serving close to 1000 meals each week.
For many consumers, GMHC’s meals programs are a lifeline. In a note to Thiele, one consumer wrote, “ I can’t thank you enough. You are keeping me alive.”
The benefits of GMHC’s meals programs extend beyond addressing food insecurity. These programs also provide opportunities for consumers to socialize with one another and break the isolation that many older adults living with HIV experience. The meals programs also serve as entry points for consumers to access other psychosocial services at the agency such as housing, mental health, and public benefits.
In addition to food, GMHC provides nutrition counseling to consumers who may have dietary restrictions. The agency also offers cooking and nutrition classes to help consumers fully benefit from the foods provided.
GMHC’s meals programs are primarily funded by New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Keith Haring Foundation, while the New York State AIDS Institute supports nutrition education with a focus on healthy eating choices. Other funders include the Food Bank for New York City and the United Way of New York City.
This summer, GMHC is once again providing consumers fresh locally grown, fruits and vegetables. Last year, Rock Steady Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley and the Headwater Food Hub outside Rochester supplied GMHC with locally grown produce, fresh dairy and dry goods that were produced in New York State.
“Our clients really enjoyed experimenting with preparing unusual produce like kohlrabi, a type of turnip, that was donated to us,” said Thiele. “We’re working to increase our food offerings, including a wider variety of ready-to-eat meals and a larger produce selection.”
GMHC will also continue distributing food to anyone in need for the foreseeable future. “We hope to resume our congregate meals program sometime later this year when we can reopen the Keith Haring Food Pantry and accommodate groups safely in our facility,” said Thiele. “I know all of us — staff, volunteers and clients — are looking forward to coming together as a community again.”