A Conversation with Open Hand Atlanta

Did you know that April 7th is World Health Day? This is an international health awareness day that has been celebrated since 1950 by the World Health Organization. We wanted to do our part to celebrate this important day so we sat down with one of our Transformative Grant Partners, Open Hand Atlanta. Executive Director, Matthew Peiper, and Director of Nutrition Services, Laura Samnadda, gave us insight to learn more about their organization, the importance of nutrition for people living with HIV, and the project they are working on as a part of the COMPASS Initiative®. Check out a brief video and read the full transcript below.

Can you provide us with a brief overview of your organization’s mission?

Matthew Peiper: Open Hand Atlanta has been around for 31 years. We are dedicated to helping people either prevent or better manage chronic disease through our nutrition services. We cook really healthy meals here, and we deliver them to 18 metro-Atlanta counties to people who are facing cancer, HIV, obesity, or diabetes. We are helping to empower them to either overcome their disease or to, at least, better manage it. We do this not only through really healthy food but also through nutrition education. At the end of the day, we like to say that what we do here is: We cook. We deliver. We teach. We care.

Can you tell us about Open Hand’s process of making and delivering meals, and how it contributes to wellness within chronic disease management?

MP: Our mission and our services help people with chronic disease, and the process […]we go through to achieve really healthy meals is quite an undertaking. We have a commitment and philosophy that everything that goes out of our kitchen is quality food. It’s grade A, not grade C – we use very little processed foods […] and canned foods; they have too much sodium. We make most of our things from scratch because this is what science is increasingly telling us is needed if we want to help people move the needle on health outcomes. But it’s not enough just to put really great food in front of people. We have got to help educate them and support them and encourage them because changing your eating habits is not an easy thing. That’s why we’re committed to nutrition education. We employ 12 registered dietitians here – 2 of them are solely focused on designing menus that are healthy and that exceed standards set by the USDA, the American heart association, and the American diabetes association, just to name a few. So, super healthy, but also delicious, and then we do nutrition education. We go out in the community, and we help people understand the connection between good health and good food.

Since you’ve given us a general overview of your program, can you give us some work you’re doing in the community?

MP: Every day, seven days a week, the work we are doing in the community can be a variety of things – at the very core of our mission, of course, is our meal delivery program. We’re delivering about 5,000 meals a day to people throughout 18 metro Atlanta counties, and, of course, we’re doing nutrition education. We’re doing that inside of clinics, hospitals, senior centers, community centers, and wellness centers, where we are really doing creative interventions that help people enjoy learning about healthy eating habits and what types of food they need to eat for their specific health condition. We also do cooking classes. We are the state administrator for a wonderful program called “Cooking Matters”, so we actually teach people how to cook healthy meals on a budget. But more than just cooking, we’re teaching them how to manage a food budget; we’re teaching them how to read a food label. So, if it says low fat, how do you really know it’s low fat? Or if it says it is low sodium, how do you know? We give them recipes, and we practice. We even take them to grocery stores and teach them which aisles they should be shopping on if they want to prepare a healthy meal on a budget for a family of four, just as an example. We are really proud of that program. It is our first statewide program and a really compelling part of our nutrition education.

Can you tell us about the role of volunteers in supporting your work?

MP: I’d love to talk about the role of volunteers in supporting Open Hand’s mission because they are the very backbone of what we stand for. This organization was founded 31 years ago by volunteers. A wonderful man by the name of Michael Edwards got together a group of friends and started cooking meals out of a church kitchen to be delivered to men and women who were dying of HIV/AIDS. He never dreamed it would grow to become the nutrition agency it is today, but those humble beginnings and the utilization of volunteers is what has made Open Hand great today. I’m proud that we have a lot of people, from all walks of life, who continue to volunteer at this campus. We have about 10,000 individual volunteers in our database, and every day on this campus they come in and help package the meals up. Some of them even help in the preparation, and then many of them will help deliver the meals. That delivery is such an important part of our mission. The warm smile, the warm face that is delivering that meal means a lot or many of our clients – especially frail senior citizens, many of whom are isolated at times, but also to people living with HIV/AIDS who may feel ostracized because of the stigma of the disease. The warm face that delivers that meal is what really gives credence that food is love. We often time on this campus preach that food is medicine, but we also know that food is love, and our volunteers demonstrate that every day.

We hear a lot about care and prevention while discussing HIV. What would you like for people to know about nutrition, HIV, and overall wellness?

MP: Nutrition is absolutely critical to maintaining the health of people with HIV. It helps them to absorb the medications that are keeping them alive in many cases, so the right kind of nutrition is vital. That is where our program comes into play. […] They need a medically tailored meal specifically designed to meet their health conditions. There are certain foods you want to eat and there are certain foods you should not be eating if you have HIV. Through nutrition education and through medical nutrition therapy, nutrition counseling that is prescribed by an HIV doctor, we are able to provide that counseling and support. […] Studies show that people who aren’t worrying about housing and food – where their next meal is coming from – are going to be more compliant about keeping up with their doctor’s visits, which is very important for anybody who is facing a chronic illness. So, nutrition programs are absolutely vital to people living with HIV/AIDS, and we are proud to be the primary nutrition provider for people living with HIV/AIDS [in Atlanta? Or is it national?] for 31 years now.

Laura Samnadda: What I would like people to know about nutrition, HIV, and overall wellness is that a diet balanced with fruits and vegetables and lean proteins can help with overall medication absorption, side effect management, as well as boosting the immune system.

What are some of the challenges you face in getting people to understand the importance of nutrition and HIV?

MP: I think there are a lot of folks out there who feel like HIV is no longer a crisis – that it is something that has been addressed. Frankly, there is fatigue out there too – it’s a disease that has been around for 35 or so years. And, as the face of HIV/AIDS has changed, so has the momentum to get to 0 infections and the momentum to raise the funds needed to provide lifesaving services, such as nutrition programs. So, we do a lot of outreach and education here at Open Hand to make sure people, whether it’s a policy leader or whether it’s someone in the community, know that the HIV/AIDS crisis is not over. We do have the means to get to 0 new HIV infections if we work collaboratively, but we do need to be cognizant of providing services to people who live with HIV/AIDS in order to give them the best quality of life. What is critical for us to understand in the HIV sector these days is that keeping people healthy and getting their viral suppression down to 0 is one of the most effective ways to reduce HIV transmission. So, it’s a smart move. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s [also] a smart move to help people maintain their health or reduce their viral load down to 0, which is very possible in this day and age with the right therapy and with the right nutrition. It’s a challenge keeping people focused on this as a crisis, but we’re committed to doing that here at Open Hand.

LS: Some of the challenges we have faced with people with HIV [who are] trying to eat healthily is that they find that eating healthy is very expensive – and it can be. A lot of challenges that people face involve choosing [between] healthy food or paying the medical bill or [between] eating healthy or keeping the lights on. There are a lot of challenges, even transportation to get to a grocery store [while] living in a food desert. Those are challenges people living with HIV can face.

Many people who are living with HIV might not have access to a lot of suggested healthy food choices. Do you have any suggestions on cost-effective ways people who are living with HIV can maintain a healthy diet?

MP: If you live in a food desert, there aren’t many choices for healthy foods. Often times in food deserts, you are going to source your foods from the gas station, which may be selling an unhealthy burrito. That’s not going to maintain good health. And so, it’s absolutely critical that we, as a society, place more emphasis on creating more food access programs. And Open Hand manages and oversees quite a few of them. Our healthy prepared meals program is the largest way that we provide healthy meals to people living with HIV, and we do this partly through donations through the community but also through federal funds that we receive through Ryan White. In addition to the prepared meals, for people who are healthier and like to cook, we also have what are called market baskets. So these are a way to supplement someone’s diet with healthy ingredients that they can prepare a meal with, including fruits and vegetables. We call then market baskets, and we actually deliver these to people’s homes so we can help overcome transportation barriers they may have. If we can provide them with the right kind of nutrition and nutrition counseling, then they can focus their resources on other matters that are important to them to sustain their healthy way of living. I will also say there are a number of food pantries around the state that are increasingly trying to provide healthier options. That’s still a work in progress in many ways. But the momentum is there, and it’s heading in that direction.

Open Hand provides information that helps people manage a food budget and provides access to healthier food through our nutrition education. Our “Cooking Matters” class actually has a track specifically designed for people who are living with HIV and AIDS so that we can help them understand which foods they should be selecting and can encourage them to enroll in programs that could potentially fund some of their food, such as SNAP Ed. While SNAP Ed funds are really modest, for some families, this is an option to supplement their diet. So, it’s a tough challenge society-wise [to determine] how we can create more access to healthier foods, and it’s something we are trying to be more innovative about.

LS: There are some cost-effective ways people living with HIV can maintain a healthy diet. One of them is to visit farmers markets. Produce is really in season in Atlanta right now, and there are a lot of farmer’s markets that double the SNAP value. There are also MARTA markets across the city that have fresh produce available. I think that using stores like Aldi are helpful to help maintain a healthy diet. Fresh isn’t always in season, so you would want to utilize and purchase canned or frozen options, as well, and that could definitely help you save money.

April 7th is World Health Day. Do you have any events planned to observe this day?

MP: We look at it as an opportunity [through social media]to not only let people know what our mission is about but also give them great facts about what the connection is between good nutrition and good health. A lot of our registered dietitians will be out on that day doing coaching and counseling, and they will be celebrating world health day. Through social media, we will be doing a lot of outreach to help remind people as to why this day is important.

You recently received a Transformative Grant from the COMPASS Initiative®, what is the project you’re working on and how is your organization planning to use the funding to address the intersection of nutrition and HIV?

MP: Open Hand Atlanta was really grateful and fortunate to receive a grant from the COMPASS Initiative®, and this grant is going to be life-changing for us in terms of our operations. We are a community-based agency, and we love that fact that our brand is all about warmth and doing good things out in the community. But at the end of the day, we are more than just a CBO. We are a manufacturing environment, and we have to always be thinking about how to manage our costs in a manufacturing environment and how to keep the labor costs down and reduce food waste. And to do that you always have to be focused on process improvement. We have wanted to introduce lean manufacturing principles into our food operations, but that’s easier said than done, and with the grant that we got thru the COMPASS Initiative®, we’ve been able to hire a phenomenal organization called the Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute. This is an arm of Georgia Tech University dedicated to helping manufacturing companies grow stronger. They are coming into our campus to help us document standard operating processes and also help coach us on how we might relook at processes to make them more efficient. […]

Do you have any other exiting information that you’d like to share with us about your organization?

MP: More and more, we want to be partnering with hospital systems, manage care organizations, and community clinics. Up until now, all of our meals are ordered through meal plans. We are going to launch what we call a grab and go product line that can be sold retail in cafes and stores within hospital systems. So, a patient that may be discharged from the hospital or their caregiver can go down to the café and actually purchase a healthy, medically tailored, grab and go meal. We are excited about the ways this can create greater access to healthier meals and introduce people to the fact that a medically tailored meal can taste delicious. We are excited about this new product line and the ways we can implement this in our community.

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