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By Marcus Tolero, Marketing and Communications Manager

While cities continue to reopen and lift COVID restrictions after over a year of closure and uncertainty, Project Open Hand was never offline through it all. It was always open.

Just ask Robert, a Community Nutrition Program (CNP) Client.

“One night, everything is good. Then, all of a sudden, all hell broke loose,” Robert said about the beginning of the pandemic. “You hear about people dying. It was scary.”

The 74-year-old Brooklyn native, who found temporary residency in a hotel that was turned into a shelter for the homeless during the pandemic, believed that he needed to help out anyway he could.

Robert is not only a client, but he is also a volunteer at Project Open Hand and this past year he has been helping package meals and food that would find its way to our clients.

“It’s good to help somebody. I have a gift which is to help people,” he said. “I’m a stubborn old man. I was not going to let the virus stop me from going to work,” he said.

Like Robert, Project Open Hand’s staff and volunteers worked feverishly to provide access to life-saving nutrition to its clients and community members, many of whom were sheltering in place and isolated from society.

But now that an end to this crisis (hopefully) appears to be in sight, Project Open Hand is beginning to visualize what a post-pandemic world looks like.

CNP, which shifted its operation to providing hot and frozen to-go meals to seniors and adults with disabilities in San Francisco, plans on reopening 12 community nutrition sites. They will modify their approach to meet the needs and comfortability of its clients in the safest manner possible.

“Now more than ever do people feel socially isolated and in need of community and congregation. Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline. That’s why we are really eager to welcome folks back ASAP. We miss conversing and breaking bread with our clients,” said Erika Molina, Director of CNP.

For seniors like Robert, the thought of enjoying a meal in a communal setting with friends brings him joy.

“We’re not meant to be locked up. That’s not how we were made. We are made to be socializing with others, and for seniors that’s very important because it keeps our minds and bodies active,” Robert said.

The Wellness Program, which offers medically-tailored meals, groceries, and nutrition counseling and education, will continue to maintain social distancing for the foreseeable future and will prioritize client and staff safety.

Client and Nutrition Services will continue to engage clients with reduced physical contact. The Wellness Program will also continue providing a service to clients that was started during the pandemic – home delivered groceries.

Did you know that on average, Project Open Hand delivered nearly 270 bags of groceries per week to clients at home?

“We’ve always delivered meals, but groceries add an additional challenge for temperature control and packing produce in a way that maintains quality. We found the right sized cardboard box, worked out the flow with our distribution team, developed a good rotation of grocery items and started delivering grocery boxes to our clients,“ said Kristi Friesen, Manager of Nutrition Services said.

Volunteer services, which currently averages 40 volunteers per day and 280 volunteers per week, will continue to operate at minimum capacity until a full reopen and expansion of services is possible. It will assess all volunteer needs and staff them appropriately, based on need. The department will continue promoting COVID vaccinations and ask volunteers to self-screen for any health issues.

“For us to continue to engage volunteers in the months to come, it is imperative that we protect each other,” Diana Contreras, Director of Volunteer Services said. “The concept of going back to normal is not one I can relate to.

While many industries were impacted by the pandemic and are starting to open back up, Project Open Hand remained open. Our frontline staff and volunteers do not get to work from home and our clients will not stop needing meals; this is our normal.”

The kitchen, which prepared 22,158 medically tailored meals in the first few weeks of June, anticipate adjusting their operation to preparing more hot meals once a full reopen occurs. The kitchen also plans to continue to use cost-saving products like pre-cut and frozen vegetables and pre-cooked whole wheat grains.

“Our production level will still be the same, but we’re planning to serve more hot meals to CNP clients once the communal sites reopen,” Executive Chef Adrian Barrow said.

This brings us full circle back to CNP client/volunteer Robert. He first received a Project Open Hand meal 10 years ago at the Curry Senior Center, a CNP site, after a long three-day, cross-country bus trip from the East Coast.

He always wanted to come to San Francisco. The hills. The ocean. The trees. The scenery. The City called to him. But when he arrived, the harsh reality was that he had nowhere to go and he was in need of a meal. He noticed a line of people outside of Curry Senior Center. It was a breakfast line.

“I just saw people standing outside the building, and they were being served meals.”

When he sat down to eat his hot breakfast, he was approached by a Project Open Hand staff member and was asked if he wanted to volunteer. He signed up immediately. And almost every day since then he’s received a meal and volunteered with Project Open Hand. “It’s like love is medicine -- a good kind deed is medicine. People need to know that you care,” he said.

And it’s that reason alone why Project Open Hand has always stayed open.

This was only possible because of the help from caring supporters like you. Thank you!


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