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Food Outreach serves an increasing number of those with HIV, AIDS and cancer

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 8, 2009 - Bob was diagnosed with HIV when he was in his mid-20s and in college. With the news of his diagnosis and a new set of expenses, he changed colleges and majors, eventually settling on psychology at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. When school bills and the cost of basic living expenses became too much, he left school to work full time.

Until a month ago, Bob visited Food Outreach once a month for food and nutritional support. Now he visits every two weeks for a hot meal and groceries to supplement the food he can afford. He doesn't have a job now, so the rent for his new apartment and payments on student loans come from his disability checks. Most days he walks to Food Outreach's midtown location because his truck -- "It's a gas-guzzler," he explained with a chuckle -- rarely has gas. 

Food Outreach is the only nonprofit organization in the St. Louis area that focuses on providing nutritional support for people undergoing treatment for HIV/AIDS and cancer. The program has 1,462 clients within a 200-mile radius.

With more people hurting from the economy and more people living with AIDS, Food Outreach expects to see a 25 percent increase in meals served in 2009. In 2008, they served 371,807 meals and this year, they expect to serve over 410,000 meals.

The good news -- at least statistically -- is that the number of people in Missouri diagnosed with AIDS has leveled off recently. Moreover, those with the illness are living longer. But that means there are more people with AIDS who may need help. The number of people living with AIDS in Missouri increased to 436,693 as of 2006, compared to 350,419 in 2002.

Food Outreach provides groceries and frozen entrees to men, women and families who are poor, have difficulties preparing meals or need to conserve their energy so they can can work more. Groceries range from frozen hamburger and ground turkey to pancake mix, canned soups and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Clients choose their items and receive about two weeks worth of food. Clients or their proxies either pick up their groceries or volunteers deliver them.

Besides meals like vegetable lasagna, Hungarian beef goulash and barbecued pulled pork, the program provides hot meals on Mondays and nutrition classes. About 70 to 75 members take advantage of Monday's hot lunches at the Outreach's Midtown building.


"But what really differentiates us from your standard meals-on-wheels program or food-pantry program is nutritional counseling related to either HIV or cancer," said Greg Lukeman, executive director of Food Outreach.

Nutrition is vital in combating HIV and AIDS to prevent weight loss. A 10 percent loss in muscle mass increases the risk of infection and raises mortality by 10 percent. Recognizing muscle mass loss in a person can be difficult, though, because it can be subtle and gradual, said Josh Dale, Food Outreach's nutritionist.

Dale preforms bio-electrical impedance analysis, or BIA, tests to spot muscle loss. The test takes a person's weight and uses electric currents to determine how much of a person's weight is muscle mass. Clients can having BIA testing done every three to six months.

Nutrition classes include breakfast and a discussion about the importance of proper nutrition in managing chronic diseases. Clients also have access to a nutritionist who can work with a client's doctor.

Clients must be diagnosed with HIV, AIDS or cancer to join the program. While most clients have HIV or AIDS, breast, lung, tongue and colon cancer are also common. In the last year, clients with cancer in the program have doubled. Cancer patients were added in 2005, thanks to a pilot program with the Siteman Cancer Center.

"Cancer seemed to be the logical step because the needs of full-blown AIDS and late-stage cancer are near one another, and there wasn't a program out there," Lukeman said.

Food Outreach's main branch is at 3117 Olive St. in Midtown, less than a mile from the Grand Boulevard MetroLink station. Two branches are in Belleville and Granite City.

The program began in 1988 with seven people giving extra food to friends with AIDS. As the program grew, operations were divided between Union Avenue Christian Church and Second Presbyterian Church. Meals were prepared at Union Avenue Christian Church and stored at Second Presbyterian. At the time, there were seven clients.

As Food Outreach grew to include a grocery service in 1996 and a delivery service in 2002, the number of clients steadily grew. By 2008, the volunteers fed 1,462 clients.

Ten full-time staff, two part-timers and 600 volunteers keep the program running smoothly. Food Outreach spends about $12,000 a week on food. The program receives funding from federal grants, donations from foundations and corporations, and internal fundraising through events like A Tasteful Affair, a dinner held every year.

"Our job is to make one less thing for (clients) to worry about, which is a consistent supply of nutritious meals and food," Lukeman said. 

Sarah Scully, an intern at the Beacon, is a student at the University of Missouri, Columbia.