Food for Thought Provides Meals and Support for Sonoma PLWHAs

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday November 1, 2012

Forestville is the natural place for a grassroots organization like Food for Thought to be planted and to flourish. The Northern California town sprang up, naturally, around the lumber industry, and its scenic Russian River location subsequently drew tourists over timber interests.

Located about seventy miles north of San Francisco, gay vacationers discovered Forestville's serene mixture of trees and water, and some visitors decided to stay for the affordable housing and accepting, bucolic community.

Just as this influx hit, the AIDS pandemic struck too, and the HIV-positive residents were in need of services, including basics such as food. In 1988, Betsy Van Dyke noticed her single gay neighbor looked frail, and the Food for Thought Food Bank emerged, dedicated to meeting the nutritional needs of those affected by the disease in Sonoma County.

"No one coping with a life-threatening illness should ever have to worry about where their next meal is coming from," said Executive Director Ron Karp. Donor Laurie Plant added, "It's bad enough to be hungry, let alone sick and hungry."

While an HIV diagnosis is no longer the death sentence it often was 25 years ago, "It's still not a walk in the park," said Lisa, a heterosexual mother who was diagnosed when she was pregnant, on Halloween 16 years ago. Single, straight dads and moms like Lisa have joined the 650 clients Food for Thought helps annually.

"We serve well over 200 more clients per month than when I began here," said Deputy Executive Director and former San Francisco chef Rachel Gardner, who has worked at Food for Thought for over a decade. "With these added populations, there's a steady increase of new diagnoses, plus people living with HIV/AIDS continue to relocate here."

For HIV-positive people without food security, Food for Thought provides a wide variety of meal items like high quality protein sources, crucial for maintaining muscle mass, including meat, tempeh and tofu. Their onsite organic garden provides fresh fruits and vegetables, and is not only a valuable nutritional resource but also a place to recreate and learn.

"My kids love going to the garden in the summer, to pick blueberries and to eat cherry tomatoes," said the married mother of three, who asked to be referred to as Gabby. "They get to ask questions about food, and explore." Food for Thought provides groceries for her whole family, via deliveries or pick-ups, as well as holiday meals and Christmas presents.

"If they didn't exist, I don't know what I'd do," said Gabby, who is Latina -- another growing clientele population that includes monolingual Spanish speakers.

Like Lisa, Gabby thinks of Food for Thought as a second family. Both women speak glowingly about staff registered dietician Nina Redman, who offers one-on-one nutrition counseling as well as recipes and cooking classes for clients and their children. Nina taught Gabby how to put vegetables into meals without her kids knowing, like using thin strips of zucchini and carrots as spaghetti, and other healthy tips such as choosing brown rice over white.

Nina encourages nutritious and organic eating to boost the immune system, to support the GI tract, and to help the body's response to infection, medicine and therapies.

"More of us are living longer," said Lisa, "but not necessarily healthier because of the side effects of the drugs."

Nina added, "Because of this longevity, good nutrition is especially essential to combat diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease."

In addition to the side effects of medicine and related chronic conditions, proper eating can mediate the long-term challenges of the virus like "accelerated aging, plus stress and psychological implications like depression and anxiety that accompany a highly complex and stigmatized disease," added Rachel.

"Stigma is the secondary disease, after HIV," said Lisa, who has trained at the AIDS Leadership Academy and is currently attending U.C. Berkeley. "At Food for Thought, you leave stigma and worries outside. There, you're a human, not a status."

Food for Thought's active volunteer corps of about 500 "Food Fairies" assists in the food bank and garden, and also helps run the organization's Sebastopol store of collectibles and consignments. Now in its fifth year, the "FFT Antiques" space was bequeathed by supporter Randall Thompson and is open seven days a week.

Lisa's son and Gabby's brother volunteer in various areas, and sometimes her mom makes tamales to donate, or brings in apples from her tree.

Creative Seasonal Fundraisers Support Food for Thought

Development Director Beth Wolfer oversees a variety of annual fundraisers, including "Calabash, A Festival of Gourds" in early October. This harvest event includes Sonoma County food and wine, plus music and crafts including a silent auction of "fine gourd art."

At the end of October this year, the "Eastside Bunch," eight Russian River family wineries, donated a portion of their "A Thoughtful Harvest" tour and tasting day proceeds. Starting in 2013, Food for Thought and Rialto Cinemas will host an Oscar party, and, in the spring, the food bank will participate in the annual Western Sonoma County Home & Garden Tour fundraiser.

On Thursday, November 29, 2012, Food for Thought will receive proceeds from the 11th Annual Dining Out for Life event, with 85 area restaurants participating from Bodega Bay to Healdsburg and Petaluma.

"We hope to raise 10 percent of our budget from this one day," said Beth. She is also coordinating a Holiday Wine Box program, which pairs local white and red wines in a festive gift box for seasonal gift giving.

With the support of these creative fundraisers, Food for Thought can provide even more than comprehensive nutrition to its community.

"We give clients a safe, stigma-free place to be themselves, to laugh, to experience human touch," said Beth. "We are big on hugs around here!"

"I am always greeted with a smile, and most of the time with a hug," said client Jimmy. "And sometimes that is the only human contact and touch that I get that week."

Lisa agreed. "When I was diagnosed, I was numb; I couldn't feel or understand anything. It was like hearing the mumbling teacher in the 'Peanuts' cartoons," she said. "But once I walked into Food for Thought, I felt safe, loved, understood. It's like fairy dust. There's something in the water here."

For more information about the upcoming Dining Out for Life and Holiday Wine Box fundraising events, or to donate your time, collectables, cash or hugs, visit

Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at