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Project Open Hand Leaders Prep for Study Data

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Bay Area Reporter

Saturday May 23, 2015

The new heads of a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides meals to people living with AIDS and other diseases are preparing for the release of data linking nutrition's impact on health as the agency marks its 30th year.

Simon Pitchford and Mark Ryle took over as co-chief executive officers at Project Open Hand in April after former executive director Kevin Winge stepped down to help care for sick family members. Pitchford and Ryle, who are both gay, have been with the agency for years.

Pitchford indicated the agency doesn't have any major changes on the horizon. Rather, he said, it will be "continuing the momentum" it's built.

Part of that involves a study called Food=Medicine, which was conducted in partnership with the UCSF School of Medicine in an effort to show good nutrition's ability to improve health and well-being for people living with critical illness and lead to reduced medical costs.

The data are currently being analyzed to help understand health outcomes based on the food provisions. The results are expected this summer.

The pilot study will help determine "what the right level of nutrition is to provide the maximum health benefit to our client base," Pitchford said. People who are living with HIV might have different needs than those living with diabetes, for example, he said.

The agency is "trying to be more tailored to the individual's needs," Ryle said.

POH spokeswoman Maria Stokes said in an email, "We aren't yet ready to share any findings from the pilot study," but she pointed to comments Dr. Sheri Weiser, who's leading the evaluation, made in a news release announcing the study in July 2014. Weiser is an associate professor of medicine at the UCSF's Division of HIV/AIDS at San Francisco General Hospital.

"We know that inadequate access to nutritious food can lead to increased hospitalizations and emergency room visits among low income, HIV-positive individuals," Weiser said. "We believe this study will help us to solidify the important connections between good nutrition and health care. By providing full nutritional support, we aim to show that when we address food insecurity and poor nutrition we improve the health and well-being of people who are critically ill."

30th Anniversary

More than 450 people recently attended POH's inaugural Taste of the City gala May 7, which the agency has forecast will bring in just over $300,000 after expenses. The total cost of the gala, which celebrated the organization's 30th anniversary, hasn't yet been finalized, Ryle said.

Other activities centered around the anniversary include what Pitchford called "honeymoon meetings" with donors, elected officials, and others. Ryle said they're "making sure people are aware of all the exciting things happening here." Discussions have included the pilot study.

Among those they've met with are gay Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose District 8 includes the Castro neighborhood.

In a text message, Wiener said, "I met with Mark and Simon and was impressed with their knowledge and passion around the nutrition and health challenges facing our community and how Open Hand is part of the solution. We're already working together to make sure no one falls through the cracks when it comes to good nutrition."

As the Affordable Care Act national health care reform law provides funding opportunities, Pitchford said the study data will help his agency "go out to insurance companies and Medi-Cal providers to help them understand why they should reimburse for the types of services that POH provides."

The nonprofit is currently in the budgeting process. The budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, is $10.7 million. Next year's expected figure "is not much different than that," Ryle said.

As of the 2013-14 fiscal year, the most recent figures available, the organization had 8,421 unique clients. Fifty-five percent of those people, or 4,645, were in the senior lunch program, which is for people who are over 60.

Ryle said one issue that "we're paying close attention to" is the population of people living with HIV who are aging. POH is beginning to work with other groups to see how it can expand programs for seniors who are living with HIV.

Ken Prag, 72, and his partner of 28 years, Steve Collins, 67, are both POH clients and have been going to senior centers where the nonprofit provides meals for years.

"We especially like the Castro Senior Center" because it's "the most friendly," Prag said.

Additionally, he said that Collins, a retired gardener, is living with HIV and has disabilities, and he's been getting seven "nutritionally balanced, delicious" frozen meals from the nonprofit once a week.

The couple has been contributing money to the agency for more than 20 years, although Prag wouldn't say how much they've given altogether.

Prag, who buys and sells antique picture postcards and other items, said Pitchford and Ryle are "absolutely fantastic. They're going to explore with me ways to get the word out to LGBT seniors at how great the senior centers are."

He said the two co-CEOs are "a little more interested in finding out what people like about the senior centers, how they can improve," and they've been "extremely" interested "in getting the word out to LGBT seniors. I did not sense this before."

The nonprofit will debut "Toast and Jam," a brunch event, from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Saturday, June 13 at Preservation Park, 1233 Preservation Park Way, in Oakland. The benefit will feature East Bay chefs and live music. Tickets are $65. Visit for more information

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