Ron Weaver, one of about 300 volunteers who operate the Asheville-based Loving Food Resources, helps a client select food on a recent Saturday. The organization gives away up to 4,000 pounds of food and household items every week to those living with HIV. Mike Belleme/Carolina Public Press

Pantry provides food, more to help make up the gap

HIV positive, Brian West thinks he’s fortunate in many ways. Insurance picks up 95 percent of his medical costs.

His protease inhibitors and other HIV drugs cost about $1,600 a month. A diabetic whose kidneys have failed, his insurance is billed $36,254 a month for his three-times-a-week dialysis treatment. A year ago, he had a heart attack, and the hospital bill alone was $80,000.

But he has a government-subsidized apartment in Kenilworth. Every month he gets $1,172 in disability money and $16 worth of food assistance. And every two weeks, he gets a box of groceries from Loving Food Resources, a free pantry for people with HIV or in hospice care.

“That makes a huge difference,” West, 51, said. “Everything I get from there is a dollar I don’t have to spend at Ingles.”

Food: The most important medicine

Loving Food Resource’s pantry in the old Sunday School building behind Kenilworth Presbyterian Church is open to clients for one hour every Saturday. West sends his partner to get canned goods, fresh produce, eggs, bread and frozen meats.

The food box he puts together is one of about 60 – each weighing about 40 pounds – that clients take home every week, said Ellen Anastos, Loving Food Resources vice president.

With 270 clients in 18 Western North Carolina counties, Loving Food takes several premade, nutritionally balanced boxes to people in outlying counties.

All told, the pantry gives away between 3,300 and 4,000 pounds of food and household items per week, Anastos said.

People with HIV often spend so much money on medicine and doctor appointments “that food gets put on the back burner,” said Jeff Bachar, executive director of the Western North Carolina AIDS Project. “In terms of survival, there are a lot of things happening that put a financial strain on a person who is HIV-positive.”

That can include being forced to move out of their homes, being left without transportation and being ostracized by family.

More than 800 million people worldwide are chronically undernourished, and over 33 million are living with HIV, according to the National Institutes of Health.

As of Dec. 31, 2010, the estimated number of living HIV disease cases diagnosed and reported in North Carolina was 25,074, according to the N.C. Department of Health & Human Services public health division. Of those people, 1,011 lived in the WNC counties that Loving Food Resources serves.

Jeffrey Whitridge, a nutritionist and volunteer with the group, estimates that the pantry serves only about a quarter of Western North Carolinians living with HIV/AIDS. He is one of a group of about 300 people who help the all-volunteer organization operate.

One of the reasons food – and anything else that costs money – can be an issue for someone with HIV is because people simply live much longer. A significant development in antiretroviral drugs in 1995 extended life expectancy after diagnosis to multiple decades, far greater than the five-year expectancy in 1983, the year AIDS was identified as a phenomena in the United States.

The drugs have helped West immensely, he said. He has not developed AIDS in the 26 years he’s been HIV positive. Because he’s on disability, he qualifies for a $40-a-month prescription plan that covers his HIV medicines.

North Carolina has its AIDS Drug Assistance Program, but it can be months before a client receives the medicine, Whitridge said. For those months, recipients must find the money for themselves, and that can mean a choice between food and medicine.

“The issue becomes, which do I want to spend money on?” Whitridge said. “They know they need the medicines to survive. But they also need food for the medicine to work.”

Concerned that some people with HIV/AIDS were choosing between medicine and food, three volunteers started Loving Food Resources — also known as LFR — in 1991 at The Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville.

About 300 volunteers operate Loving Food Resources, which offers food and household items to those who are HIV positive within 18 Western North Carolina counties. Clients, advocates and healthcare experts say those living with HIV often make difficult choices between medication and food. Mike Belleme/Carolina Public Press

Since then, LFR has helped about 1,200 people, having expanded its mission in 1996 to help people at home in hospice care.

It operates on an annual budget of about $97,000, brought in through grants, donations and fundraiser proceeds. More than 80 percent goes toward buying food and personal care items. Some food is donated, and some is purchased, mainly from MANNA FoodBank in Asheville. The orgaization’s only expenses are lease, utilities and insurance. Everyone who works there is a volunteer.

Good food for better health

It’s two days before shopping day at Loving Food Resources, and Whitridge is giving a tour of the pantry.

“It’s kind of like a grocery store,” he says, walking into the pantry. Several shelves were positioned at a uniform angle across the rectangular floor. Several coolers sat nearby, ready for volunteers to stock with the week’s produce and meats.

“We don’t look at how you got here but (rather at) what you’re doing to be here,” Whitridge said. That means taking care of yourself, because good nutrition is especially important to those with HIV.

“We’re trying to maximize the nutrition within that box so that they have enough protein for a week and enough complex carbohydrates, instead of giving them empty calories,” he said.

Weight loss – because of antiretroviral drugs, lack of food or the general “wasting away” caused by the virus – is a big issue for people with HIV, which exploits the weakness that weight loss brings on.

“Yes, people are living longer with the virus because of the antiretroviral therapy, but the lean body mass is where the opportunistic infection will occur,” Whitridge said.

Not surprisingly, few clients approached for Carolina Public Press by Loving Food Resources or WNCAP wanted to speak on the record about his or her food issues as they relate to having HIV. Living with HIV/AIDS may be easier these days, but the stigma can still be severe. So, it’s left to those who serve them, such as Whitridge, to recount how secure – or insecure – they are when it comes to food.

“In today’s economic times, the thing that I’m hearing is food has always been an issue, but now it’s gas and rent and heat and electric – they’re just struggling to keep their homes together,” Whitridge said. “Often times, with clients or their family members, they’ll say they didn’t know where (their food) was coming from. They’ll say we’re a godsend. For them to be able to walk out of here with a week’s worth of food, some people are in tears.”

West, who said he used to make a good living selling cars and real estate before he became disabled. He became anemic twice and has “had every side effect there is” to the HIV medicine he takes.

His health is pretty good, he said, in spite of all he’s undergone. “I’m getting along,” he said.

His disability check pays the rent, the utilities and for his meds and the gas in his car. But not much is left over for food.

The food from Loving Food Resources, “that helps a lot,” he said.

“The disability (check) doesn’t go far, so I have to chose very carefully,” he said. “Things are tight. I make it, but just barely.”

Coming up: A We are WNC profile of one Western North Carolina person living with HIV, who talks about finding home and food after years of struggle.

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