God's Love We Deliver Celebrates 30 Years of Food as Medicine for New York's Neediest

Associate Editor
Karen Pearl (Credit: Janette Beckman)
Karen Pearl
Janette Beckman

God's Love We Deliver has been delivering food to the doors of people living with HIV or other chronic illnesses in New York City for 30 years. The organization celebrated this milestone anniversary on May 1, 2015, and is renovating its main space to allow it to provide twice as many services as before.

God's Love We Delivery believes that nutritious food is not only medicine, it is also love and compassion. God's Love We Delivery CEO and President Karen Pearl sat down with me to discuss the organization's future, the importance of continued advocacy, why it delivers a cake to each client on his or her birthday and what Joan Rivers meant to the organization.

First of all, congratulations on 30 years of God's Love We Deliver.

Thank you very much. It's quite a milestone.

How long have you been with God's Love We Deliver?

Eight-and-a-half years. Through a lot of change in the organization; but also a lot of constancy. So we are always looking forward, and also holding onto the very important heritage that started our organization that's propelled us forever.

I love that a lot of people recognize the role that God's Love We Deliver has played, especially in New York City, in the care of people living with HIV. But in the last 15 years, in the last half-history of God's Love We Deliver, you've expanded into taking care of people living with many different ailments. Is that correct?

That's right. Today, we're serving people with HIV and AIDS, of course, and people with about 200 different diagnoses in addition to that. So, all the different kinds of cancers. We tend to talk about cancer as one disease, but it's actually many. Cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, COPD, advanced diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, end-stage renal failure -- and I could go on.

So we have people who are living with severe and/or chronic illness who simply are so sick that they can't shop or cook for themselves.

How does someone access your services? Are they usually referred to you by a doctor? Or can they sign up themselves?

First, we start with the premise -- and this has always been our guiding premise -- that no one should face the dual crisis of illness and hunger. And so we believe that if you need us, we're going to be there for you -- no bureaucracy, just get you food. If you call and say, "I'm hungry and I'm sick," we're going to get you food. Now, that's the first step.

So how does that first step happen? Lots of different ways. Still, remarkably, one of the best ways people find us is word of mouth: their neighbor, family, friend -- somebody -- says, "You need to call God's Love." We also get a lot of people who are referred to us from their medical treatment -- whether that's a doctor, or an advanced practice nurse, or a PA, or a social worker, discharge nurse, any kind of nurse -- anybody in the medical field.

They take that very brave step of saying, "I'm sick and I'm hungry, and I need your help," and we get them a meal.

What happens is, people call. They take that very brave step of saying, "I'm sick and I'm hungry, and I need your help," and we get them a meal. Then they have 10 days to get us a doctor's note that confirms that they have a diagnosis and tells us something about why they can't shop or cook for themselves.

And so there are all these activities of daily living. Doctors just have to check them off -- like they can't walk; they can't carry; they can't lift -- all the things when you think about what it means to go shopping, and what it means to stand and cook. When people can't do those things and they have problems with certain activities of daily living, then they're on our program. And they're on for six months and then a doctor or a medical professional has to recertify that they are still in need of our services.

When it comes to volunteers, I think there's more than a hundred-to-one ratio of volunteers to full-time staff. What are some of the many ways that volunteers help get the meal to a client -- from sourcing ingredients to the delivery? And how can someone become a volunteer?

First, just the sheer number: We use over 8,000 volunteers a year -- and that's individuals. Some will volunteer with us once a year, like with their company on a service day, or as a college student on their spring break. Some people do alternate spring break with us. Some will volunteer a few times a year. Some will volunteer every single week, week in, week out. So we are also very accommodating to people's schedules. We so appreciate the volunteer service and the dedication, and the donations of time. Because we use volunteers throughout our organization.

Many volunteers work in our kitchen. They chop. They sauce. They plate meals. They help our baker bake our brownies, birthday cakes, desserts. So they work in all different ways in the kitchen. The only thing they don't actually do in the kitchen is the cooking, because that is dangerous -- with all the hot ovens, hot pans, whatever. So, everything else but the cooking.

They work in what we call our meal packaging, our meal kitting process, where each individual client's meal gets packaged into a bag to make sure they get the right specific foods for their specific medical situations. They work on deliveries. They do walking deliveries; they go on our vans. So they help in delivery in lots of different ways.

Many volunteers work in our offices. They work in the nutrition department, client services, finance, doing all sorts of things. We have a volunteer in our HR department. All of our departments have, at various times in the year, really counted on volunteers to do specific work.

One of the things we guarantee is that you're never going to be bored. We take our volunteers' time very seriously and we make sure that they have really important work to do, if we're calling them in to help us. And so they come. And they're dedicated. And they come back. Even if they do a service day, they come back, year after year after year, doing their service day with us. And we're very excited by that.

We're 30 years old, and we have some volunteers who have been with us as long as over 20 years. Some 15, some 10 years. People really believe in what we do, and we're grateful for that.

You have this baker who's featured prominently on your site, Chuck "The Baker." How long has he been with God's Love We Deliver? How did the baking program start? And just what is the idea behind the Birthday Bake Sale?

Chuck Piekarski is his name. Chuck has been with us for almost 25 years. He got started way back when people were wasting with HIV, and what was most important was to do something that made people feel good, want to eat, and just be able to get in calories. Early on in our years, one of Chuck's major roles was making sure that people got some calories into them. Who doesn't like to look at a really delicious baked good?

Over time, as the needs of people with HIV and AIDS have changed, including their diets -- where now we're almost at the other side of that coin, where more and more people living with HIV are struggling with too much weight, and struggling with heart disease and all of the other diseases, diabetes, whatever, that come with aging (thank goodness they're aging, right? Living on treatment for 20, 25 years) -- Chuck has also changed what he bakes. He uses less sugar, more fresh fruits and all sorts of things. And everything continues to be incredibly delicious.

But the one thing Chuck does no matter what is he bakes a birthday cake for every one of our clients or, if they have children and on our program, for their kids, as well -- or senior caregivers with their seniors -- and he decorates it the same way that you or I go to a bakery and say, "Could you please make a cake for my friend's birthday? Say 'Happy Birthday, Mathew.'" So, if Mathew's on our program, the cake in Chuck's icing handwriting is "Happy Birthday, Mathew." It's decorated with roses. I mean, it's beautiful. It's like a perfect birthday cake that you get from a professional baker -- because Chuck is a professional baker. And he does this for everybody.

So, on their birthday, we deliver a birthday cake. Probably we get more thank-yous about that part of our program than anything else. People say, "Nobody recognizes my birthday. I haven't had a birthday in 10 years -- or ever." And every cake goes with a handmade birthday card, from somebody in the New York City Public Schools or private school system; as their service, they decorate cards, and wish our clients happy birthday.

We are doing a bake sale, somewhat in honor of our birthday, our 30th anniversary. For $10 people can buy a cake, or donate a cake to somebody on our program, and make somebody's day. It's really great when they feel good.

There's also a lot of behind-the-scenes advocacy that I think people don't know about. What is God's Love We Deliver advocating for, especially in terms of malnutrition?

Right. We believe at God's Love that food is medicine. And we believe that food is love. The "food is love" part comes pretty easy. You go to somebody's home. You bring them beautiful, delicious, appetizing meals, and you bring a smile and lots of respect, dignity, and care. And they know that they're loved. They know that our volunteers are treating them lovingly, and our staff is treating them lovingly. The "food is love" part is really easy.

The "food is medicine" part has required some advocacy. Because all of our clients are sick. Everybody sort of intuitively knows that good nutrition is important, but they don't necessarily understand that good nutrition actually does a lot to advance the health care reform goals that, across the country and in every state, people are looking at. And there are three of them. One of them is improving patient outcomes. One is lowering the cost of health care. The third is increasing patient satisfaction. Those are the three goals that come with the Affordable Care Act.

Good, nutritious food has a key role in meeting those three goals for everybody who is sick. And at God's Love, what we do is, we tailor the meal that somebody is getting to their specific medical circumstances. So we are very much about creating the environment that helps people do the very best that they can do medically.

How do we know that that's what happens? Because in the world of HIV, CD4 counts improve; viral load improves; people stay in care; they go to care. You can't stay in our program if you're not in care. So we actually know that we are improving the health outcomes of people. But that's not only true with HIV; that's true with all the illnesses.

We know that we're lowering costs because when people have good nutrition, even when they're sick, they have a lower incidence of going to the hospital than people who are living with malnutrition. They have shorter stays in the hospital. And more and more, they go home out of the hospital -- they're discharged back to their home more than to institutions, whether they are rehab centers, nursing homes, whatever. All of that lowers the cost of health care.

And then the third goal, patient satisfaction -- seriously, I mean, people would rather be at home than be in a hospital or a nursing home. I think we all know that.

One of the major factors that takes people to the hospital is actually not having good enough nutrition. So, again, research shows that a third of everybody who goes to the hospital for whatever their illness suffers from malnutrition. If we can lower that, we can lower the number of people who even start down the road of going to the hospital.

So, food is medicine; food is love. And so part of our advocacy is not only to educate people about all of that -- and that, of course, is its own one-hour seminar, which I won't bore you with -- but it's to educate policymakers, both in the legislative side and in the administrative side, from the executive branch to the department of health, and at the federal level, HHS or CMS, about that. And then for us to be working more and more to ensure that food and nutrition becomes a covered benefit in health care, so that people who really need it can have the kind of full services that Ryan White affords people in many states -- not all, but in many states -- with HIV and AIDS.

Because there's a recognition through the Ryan White program that food and nutrition was key to people benefitting from the doctors' appointments that were being made available, from the antiretrovirals that were being made available -- from all the pieces of care that people get to medically address their HIV. If you pull out food and nutrition, you're going to lose a lot of those benefits.

Ryan White, in our mind, is the gold standard. It's what should be happening with all these other illnesses. We can point to the really good outcomes through Ryan White and say this is what could be true also with all these other illnesses.

Yeah. There's no reason that the gold standard of care shouldn't be the standard of care for everyone.

That's correct, particularly because we know it works -- not just because it makes people happy, or feel good; we know it works medically.

And so when everybody's looking at how do you get the most out of any kind of health care system, at their peril they leave out food and nutrition for people who are sick. And I would say for all people, of course -- but that's a different story.

Switching gears a little bit, how are you guys going to celebrate your 30th?

This is a very important year for us. We have been engaged for a number of years in a capital campaign. We have a permanent home in SoHo that we basically ripped down to the steel, and we have been building for the last year-and-a-half to make it more than double the size that it used to be, so we can more than double our services to people who are living with illnesses.

Our anniversary is May 1. We're going to have a number of VIPs in the kitchen, cooking with us. Then we're going to do a sort of remembrance and a celebration at lunch with our staff and volunteers. And then that's going to set out a whole month's recognition of key people involved with God's Love, both in our history and today. Hopefully, at the end of that, early June, we open our new building. So it's a very exciting time.

The last thing I want to ask you is: As you guys are celebrating your 30th and looking forward, what was it like to go into this new chapter of God's Love We Deliver without the presence of Joan Rivers there? I think a lot of people associate you two together.

That will always be an honor for us. I like to say that Joan was the real deal. Joan wasn't just a celebrity face who showed up when the cameras were going. Joan was actively involved with God's Love for over 25 years. She worked in our kitchen. She went on deliveries. I had the pleasure of doing many deliveries with Joan. She came every Thanksgiving and went to people's homes. She came to celebrate staff and important milestones in our history -- like the groundbreaking for our new building. Joan was the real deal. She loved God's Love, and she loved the people who we served, and she loved talking to our clients and our staff, and all of our volunteers. She was our big ambassador. Everything we do without her is a little painful. We miss her every day. We like to say she will forever be in our hearts, which she will be.

As part of our big building and our ribbon cutting of the whole building, which is the Michael Kors Building -- we're very excited about that -- we will also be cutting the ribbon on the Joan Rivers Bakery, because she had a love affair with Chuck, our baker. So the bakery is named after her. Obviously, I don't mean a literal love affair -- just to set the record straight. It's always hard when you're not looking at somebody's face to know exactly what they're hearing. She and Chuck were quite fond of each other. So it's going to be the Joan Rivers Bakery in her honor.

And then we are completely delighted and honored that Melissa Rivers has agreed to join our board and continue the legacy of Joan in some ways, both as a board member and also as an ambassador for God's Love. Melissa is very excited about that, and will be helping us with our new building and with a number of things related to keeping Joan's -- not her memory alive, because a lot of people will keep her memory alive -- but her importance to God's Love, to have that always marked. And then, of course, Melissa will put her own stamp on this, which we're also very excited about.

It is an exciting time. Thank you for giving us a chance to let the world know it's our 30th anniversary -- and we are here to stay. I mean, our new building is the best evidence. And we will always be there. We all want to live in a world where we no longer have to deal with HIV. But until that point, we will.

Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @mathewrodriguez, like his Facebook page or visit him on his personal website.