Going through dozens and dozens of eggs. Experimenting with veganism and pescetarianism. Putting on the “COVID 19.” (Haha—get it?) And working overtime to get food and/or entire meals out to needy folks in a time of quarantine and perhaps unprecedented economic and labor instability.
Welcome to the world of eating and cooking within the HIV community in the time of coronavirus. Like much of the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our community’s culinary habits in abrupt and dramatic ways. We’re likely eating out and ordering in less and making our own meals more. We’re gaining pounds as we find ourselves stuck at home, sedentary, with not much more to do than bake, roast, pan-fry, microwave and, well, munch. And we’re being strategic about our visits to the supermarket, both out of health concerns (Masks and gloves on! Six feet apart in line!) and wallet worry at a time when many of us have lost work, or fear losing it.
But of course, those of us living with HIV have specific concerns, too. We need to keep eating healthy to boost compromised immune systems—even those of us who are undetectable with robust CD4 counts. We may need to eat specific foods with our HIV or other meds. And we may need to stretch our dollars more than most.
In Milford, Pennsylvania, Brenda Emily says she fears that being inactive at home will make her gain weight, exacerbating her HIV-related lipodystrophy, “and it’s stressing me out! I’ve been much more restrictive with what I eat, especially around carbs, sugar, meat, and dairy.” She’s mainly making veggie-based meals.
In D.C., Larry Bryant says that he’s been doing “stir-fry to prevent going stir-crazy” (cute, Larry!) and has been devoting weekends, “when I don’t have a parade of Zoom conference calls for work,” to meal prep. “Taking time to thoughtfully and creatively prepare meals has always been a Friday evening ritual for me, a form of self-care, and now has become a much higher-valued part of my week.”
In New Jersey, Xio Mora-Lopez says, “Aside from living with HIV, I have high blood pressure and am prediabetic, so I really follow all safeguards to prevent COVID-19 entering my home, because I’m at higher risk for a bad outcome.” Hence, she’s cooking almost all her meals, not only because it’s cheaper (especially with prices on some foods surging because of demand) but because she’s “uncertain of food preparation and transport safety outside of my house.”
With beef harder to find, she says, she’s eating a lot of chicken and frozen fish—plus eggs. Lots of eggs. “In two weeks,” she says, “my daughter and I have gone through eight dozen. They’re very versatile and filling. Scrambled, hard-boiled on a salad, omelets, quiche—and a Cuban ‘poor family’ favorite, two fried eggs over white rice.”
And in Oakland, California, Naina Khanna, executive director of Positive Women’s Network, who used to work in several kitchens, says, “I’m cooking every day. It’s been a fun challenge to make sure I’m not bored with my food, which means I’ve been testing new recipes! I’ve been learning to pickle red onions with herbs and spices, to throw them on sandwiches or tacos. Hot chiles of every kind are a requirement in my house to make sure I can flavor whatever I make. Some new things I’ve been learning to make are pork and chicken carnitas, Sri Lankan curries, and cowpeas, which are like a pink version of black-eyed peas. Easy staples are stir-fried veggies with mung bean noodles and a protein, like tofu, eggs, or meat.”
Trying New Things
For some folks, coronavirus is prompting dramatic dietary changes. “I’ve been trying to do this whole pescatarian thing,” says Ty Gaffney-Smith, a staffer at AIDS Project Los Angeles, referring to a diet of no meat, only fish. “So I’ve been doing a lot of crab noodles and raviolis and big pasta dishes. In the past, my pescatarian attempts lasted only two days.” And, he says, he’s been offsetting all that pasta by doing Shaun T.’s super-hard, calorie-shredding “Insanity Workout.”
On Fire Island Pines, the gay coastal community near New York City, HIV longtime survivor and pioneer activist Eric Sawyer says that with no restaurants or take-out happening, and with only one small grocery store with a preorder pick-up window to maintain social distancing, “ordering and picking up the food, cooking, baking, and eating have become the focus of daily life. You better not forget to order the butter for the banana bread or the ground turkey for the meatloaf. We’re baking almost daily. We’re researching new recipes, learning to cook new things, and trying to make healthier meals, relying less on poultry, meats, and fish and more on plant-based proteins—lots of vegan soups, casseroles, pastas, and stir-fries.”
Also in LA, musician Dudley Saunders says of himself and his husband, “We’d flirted with a plant-based diet before the pandemic, but I just didn’t have the attention span to do all the prep work. Now, suddenly, I’m pressure [cooking] tofu overnight and then marinating and baking each side. Who knew tofu could be tasty and substantial? The only downside is that I’ve never had so many goddamn dishes to do.”
The Truly Struggling
Of course, at least some of these dispatches are from those in the HIV community who, despite the corona crisis, are still financially secure. They have savings, haven’t lost work, or have partners or family to support them. When it comes to how folks with HIV are coping during COVID, says longtime San Francisco AIDS Foundation honcho Ernest Hopkins, “If we aren’t careful, a story that ostensibly should be about low-income, Black, Latinx, and Native folks will end up getting told through a generic HIV activist lens, which is predominated by middle-class white folks.”
And indeed, as told to TheBody by dozens of HIV agencies nationwide, clients who typically rely on food pantries and meal services are now relying on them more than ever, and in greater numbers, as health-vulnerable folks find themselves unable to go out and do their own shopping—and as their family members lose work, thus reducing resources for the entire household.
“We’ve already brought on 1,000 new clients” since the COVID-19 crisis began “and are working through 3,000 more applications and referrals for service,” says Lisa Zullig, director of nutrition services at New York City’s God’s Love We Deliver, which has long delivered homemade meals to folks with HIV, cancer, and other health conditions. “Demand for services has increased more than five-fold since the start of the pandemic.”
To address both the surge in need and the drop-off in volunteer food preppers, says Zullig, God’s Love We Deliver has been simplifying its menus by, for example, making all its soups purées and vegetarian (it usually offers options) and cooking, say, a coconut curry with whole pieces of chicken instead of chopping them up into bite-size pieces. Recently, to give a one-week break to its overstretched staffers, some of whom had recently lost loved ones to COVID-19, the agency sent all clients 14 days’ worth of meals in advance—which means that, in one week, the agency prepared a staggering 140,000 meals.
Additionally, in March, the agency sent clients three rounds of bags full of emergency nonperishables including beans, rice, and pasta. The essentials of cheap, easy, healthy cooking, said Zullig, are canned beans, pasta, grains including rice, eggs, fruits and vegetables (frozen or even canned if fresh aren’t available), no-sugar peanut butter, and canned tuna. With those things alone, she said, in addition to some basics like olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and other spices, endless meals are possible.
“You can mix together oatmeal and peanut butter” for a quick and cheap protein bang, she said. “Hard-boiled eggs are delicious in a salad or even just with salsa.”
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, federal HIV funding streams such as HOPWA and Ryan White are currently deploying their special COVID cash infusions to on-the-ground providers, as well as giving those providers leeway to pivot fund use in ways that make sense. And that’s a good thing, as it seems that among the more than a dozen HIV agencies we heard back from for this story, nearly every one of them said that food and meal demand has surged in the time of corona.
Says Kathie Hiers at AIDS Alabama, “The need for food at our offices in Mobile and Birmingham is off the chain. We’re delivering hundreds of food boxes, mostly in the parking lots. HOPWA got $65 million in the first round of the CARES Act COVID funding, and we’re getting a total of about $775,000 for the state and the city of Birmingham through our four HOPWA grants. We don’t have it yet, but we’re being told to spend it in advance of getting it. We got waivers approved to provide food and emergency hotels for social distancing. Ryan White got $100 million federally for COVID, and Alabama is getting $903,700 of that.”
Reports Carmen Julious at the HIV agency PALSS in South Carolina, “Our emergency food pantry is still open and we’ve had steady demand, usually supplying about three days’ worth of food. My program manager says we’re seeing about a 25% to 30% increase in usage. We’ve had some difficulty getting the supply we need. We usually purchase a lot of our bulk food pantry items from the local food bank, but they’re now open limited hours and don’t have enough supply to meet their demand. But we’ve still been able to fulfill all requests so far. We mostly have nonperishable items like beans, rice, pasta, and canned goods. We’ve purchased some protein items from local big-box stores. We don’t usually carry eggs, butter, and milk due to limited refrigerator storage.”
In Queens, New York, AIDS Center of Queens County reports that their main site has seen a 50% increased weekly demand for food and is now providing more than 300 pantry bags of food twice weekly. The agency’s food delivery has expanded “not only to the elderly,” says associate executive director Dawn Douglas Blackburne, “but to families, pregnant mothers, and HIV-positive folks both with mental illness and at high risk for COVID-19. ... Most recently, the community began to request fresh fruits and vegetables, meat (poultry), hygiene kits, and school supplies like coloring books, pencils, books, and note pads.”
In the Bronx and Harlem, African Services Committee’s Amanda Lugg has been doing door-to-door food deliveries in her own car three days a week for the last month. And the agency’s no-contact pantry is now open every other week instead of just once a month, says pantry coordinator Youma Nafo. Meanwhile, in Philly, BEBASHI’s Rhonda Lipschutz reports a more than 200% increase in patrons to the agency’s FoodFirst pantry between February and the end of April.
Nationwide, agencies are finding innovative ways to make sure that their most vulnerable clients don’t go hungry. In Indianapolis, the Damien Center’s Tyler Neal says, “We traditionally distribute food and food cards, but we haven’t been able to get real food from our provider in several weeks due to high demand, so we’re currently food cards only. We’ve seen a steady increase of about 10 families per week, many of whom are reporting job loss and difficulty getting food.”
In Irvine, California, Radiant Health Centers’ food pantry “closed for a few days in mid-March after a team member was tested for COVID-19, but quickly resumed operations,” says the agency’s Philip Yaeger. “We redirect clients to the back of the building and meet them in the parking lot to take their order while they remain in their cars. We also provide transportation via Lyft for clients who lack it but can get out and pick up their own food. Then we have a team of volunteers who deliver to homebound clients. We’ve seen clients come in for food pantry who haven’t needed it for years but now have lost jobs and income.”
And some agencies are even documenting their hard work in order to raise PR and funds. In Memphis, Tennessee, for example, Friends for Life has released a video showing how, since mid-March, it has made nearly 1,000 deliveries of more than 3,000 bags of food and supplies.
“We’ve continued to take referrals from other community agencies to serve clients they’ve had to turn away due to their own lack of resources in the current crisis,” says the agency’s Savannah Bearden. “Our pantry is completely staff-run, with each team member using their personal vehicles to make deliveries. And in May, we’ll also be adding cleaning supplies, laundry detergent, and materials and instructions to make DIY masks at home.”
Bearden says that the agency plans to keep this up through the summer at least.
And in Oakland, California, the agency APEB has gone from delivering food to 40 households at the start of April to more than 80 by early May. Says the agency’s Rob Newells, “Depending on what we pick up from the Alameda County Food Bank each week, households get three to five bags including fresh produce; frozen proteins like chicken, fish, and beef; canned goods; bread; pasta; dairy; and eggs; when available.” And, he notes, “We’ve also received authorization from funders to purchase Grubhub gift cards for clients” to get hot meals to those who can’t or don’t cook.
Plus, every two weeks, the agency’s outreach team delivers nonperishable food, snacks, and cloth face masks to homeless encampments.