Food For Thought offered food as medicine during AIDS epidemic
Food as medicine. It seems like such an obvious concept, but less than forty years ago, the idea was little more than a grassroots effort to keep young men affected by HIV and AIDS alive.
And, it started here along Sonoma County’s Russian River community of Guerneville, thanks to a forward-thinking nonprofit called Food For Thought.
In 1988, Betsy Van Dyke, a Guerneville resident, noticed that her neighbor, a single gay man with AIDS, was looking more and more frail. She was concerned that he wasn’t getting enough to eat, and might not even have enough money for food. She purchased groceries and left them on his doorstep, according to the organization’s website.
Van Dyke ended up serving as the organization’s first executive director for a handful of years. The organization sought out additional help.
Ron Karp entered the fray. With passion for growing organic food, he offered his service as the interim executive director. Karp is a founding member of the California Food Is Medicine Coalition and has also served on the boards of the Association of Nutrition Service Agencies and the Sonoma County Commission on AIDS
“But I loved working for this organization,” Karp said. “There is such an honesty and transparency in this organization.”
Karp came from the early days of the computer tech industry in San Francisco so the move to nonprofit management was undoubtedly new.
“To work at a place run by volunteers…it’s a place where everyone is treated with respect and kindness,” Karp said. “I don’t ever want to lose those values.”
Loving kindness as a mission
Loving kindness guided Food For Thought’s mission from the beginning. Karp explained that the AIDS epidemic of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s grew rapidly first in big cities like New York City and San Francisco.
“People would seek places of comfort and rest and so Guerneville, which had been a vacation destination, became a popular spot for sanctuary,” Karp said. “And so, Sonoma County had one of the largest population of AIDS patients per capita.”
The first part of the AIDS epidemic was hell for those with the disease. The fear and stigmatism around a positive diagnosis cascaded around the medical community. Patients were unable to receive adequate care and were often placed in AIDS wards, which were often inferior in supplies and resources. It was lonely and scary.
Jim Komerak knows firsthand.
“In the late 1980s, I was living in San Francisco working as a DJ and managing a nightclub when I tested positive for HIV,” Komerak said. “I was scared and knew that I really needed to focus on survival. I had vacationed at the Russian River in Sonoma County and thought that the peace and serenity of the area would provide a more healing environment for me.”
It wasn’t easy. The death rate from AIDS in Sonoma County was high.
“Nearly 100 people a year died a year in the late ‘80s,” Karp said.
A handful of individuals like Van Dyke got together to figure out to best help these AIDS patients living amid their community.
“They came around their kitchen table and were very smart about it,” Karp said.
In 1999, the organization moved to its Forestville site, surrounded by organic gardens, in a functional solar-powered facility with a welcoming client service area, a walk-in cooler and freezer, a grocery store-style set-up, and room for offices and meetings. They were well on their way to being an integral step to thousands of patients’ survival in Sonoma County.
Food as medicine
In fact, the organization provides more than just food. They partner with other organizations throughout the county and country to ensure patients living with HIV, AIDs or other chronic illnesses have the full support they need.
When Komerak was enrolled in the food program, he became connected with other key resources for people living with HIV including the Russian River Health Center and Face to Face.
“This gave me access to an excellent medical team and ultimately to the lifesaving drugs that were starting to become available. I really believe that the nutrition support and the connections that FFT provided helped to save my life,” Komerak said.
Over time, as Komerak regained some strength, he began volunteering at Food For Thought.
“I helped in several ways from working on fundraising mailings to helping Food For Thought’s clients at the food bank counter. Helping others really took me outside of myself,” Komerak said.
The organization has created a lifeline for Komerak. He has also served on Food For Thought’s Board of Directors for five years as the client representative, empowering him to give input about client services.