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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.

“Food For Thought has been there for me through the ups and down of life,” Komerak said. “In 2017, I suffered a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. The nourishing food I received really helped me recover.”

Expanding the mission

Food For Thought has had one of the best success rates with viral suppression rates, Karp said. Many local doctors report that Sonoma County’s higher-than-average rate of HIV viral suppression (77%, versus the country’s average of 49%) is in part because of FFT’s services. The organization has also helped their patients lower their medical bills.

“All through healthy food,” Karp added.

When the pandemic hit, the organization braced for impact.

“We received a bunch of foundation gifts,” Karp said. “They knew we would be hit.”

COVID forced Food For Thought to rethink its entire operations. The volunteer-reliant organization had to temporarily say goodbye its heart and soul and bring in paid staff to operate the kitchen.

“We just took it on,” Karp said. “It was pretty intense.”

Over the course of the pandemic, Food For Thought served 3,000 people – quadruple the number of patients they served in 2019.

“It was important for us to stay in order to serve our clients,” Karp said.

Support the mission

Now, the community can turn out to support Food For Thought. The nonprofit is holding a virtual fundraiser this Sunday, June 13 at 7 p.m. called Our Virtual Table.

“I think it’ll be fun,” Karp said. “It’s a great opportunity to learn about Food For Thought and to meet people.”

About the event

Event: Title: Our Virtual Table

Date: Sunday, June 13, 2021

Time: 7:00 p.m.

Location: please visit: www.fftfoodbank.org/our-virtual-table-home

Description: This live streamed event will include music by King Street Giants, an inspirational client speaker, engaging videos from our team and giving opportunities. We’ll also have to-go food, wine options and a great online auction, full of items for you to bid on—all from the comfort of your home!

Park Avenue Catering is providing meals for purchase and Russian River Vineyards is offering wine specials benefiting Food For Thought! Your support helps Food For Thought feed 4,000 people living with HIV, COVID-19 and other serious illnesses in Sonoma County.

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