A visit from a fa­mil­iar face

GA Voice - - Outspoken -

The pre­pared meals or­ga­ni­za­tion Open Hand may be known for feed­ing open mouths of the hun­gry for 30 years, but per­haps it should be more known for the huge open hearts of its vol­un­teers, staff and founder.

“It’s shock­ing to learn how many peo­ple go to bed hun­gry,” founder Michael Ed­wards-Pruitt said. “More than get­ting a meal, they got a visit. They got some­body that would come in and sit down with them for a while. Maybe have a cup of cof­fee or a cup of tea. That also added some­thing, be­cause they knew there were peo­ple out there who cared about whether they were alive or dead.”

What be­gan as an or­ga­ni­za­tion to feed At­lantans with AIDS who could not cook for them­selves ex­panded into a group that pre­pares healthy meals for in­di­vid­u­als with dietary con­cerns, health is­sues and even busy folks who don’t have time to shop for qual­ity food.

“To­day’s Open Hand, we have just built on top of all the great lead­er­ship that Michael and all the other vol­un­teers brought,” Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Matt Pieper said. “We’ve taken it to a new level by mak­ing sure that the meals are med­i­cally tai­lored. Our meals meet or ex­ceed nu­tri­tional stan­dards set by the Amer­i­can Di­a­betes As­so­ci­a­tion, the Amer­i­can Heart As­so­ci­a­tion and the U.S. Academy of Nu­tri­tion and Di­etet­ics. We have many, many dif­fer­ent types of menus that are cus­tom­ized to ad­dress the spe­cific health needs of adults and youth.”

From 14 clients to 5,400 meals per day

The or­ga­ni­za­tion pre­pares about 5,400 meals per day in its Ar­mour Yards kitchen, which are de­liv­ered to clients in 18 coun­ties around the city. It’s a far cry from the orig­i­nal 14 clients Ed­wards-Pruitt started with in 1988.

“I heard about Project Open Hand in San Fran­cisco, which pro­vided meals to peo­ple with AIDS at no charge. Home-cooked, de­li­cious, beau­ti­fully pre­pared meals. I thought, ‘I’ve got a ho­tel and restau­rant back­ground and I know how to cook. Why can’t this hap­pen in At­lanta?’” Ed­wards-Pruitt said.

The At­lanta ver­sion launched out of his kitchen. Soon it be­came clear the group needed a big­ger space. He ap­proached St. Bartholomew’s Epis­co­pal Church and was granted per­mis­sion to use the kitchen on one con­di­tion: Open Hand would also need to pre­pare meals for the home­less served by the Epis­co­pal church’s com­mu­nity.

“I im­me­di­ately said yes, of course, so that took us to 32 peo­ple,” Ed­wards-Pruitt said. “Word of mouth went around the com­mu­nity and I talked with a lot of com­mu­nity lead­ers. We formed a board. Open Hand be­gan to grow. It grew faster than we ever thought.”

Em­pha­sis on por­tion con­trol, health in­gre­di­ents

By em­pow­er­ing peo­ple with good nu­tri­tion and nu­tri­tion ed­u­ca­tion, Open Hand staff be­lieves clients will be able to bet­ter ad­dress their chronic ill­nesses. Each client re­ceives their meals free of charge, an as­pect cen­tral to Open Hand’s op­er­at­ing model.

“It’s all freshly pre­pared. We put the em­pha­sis on por­tion con­trol and healthy in­gre­di­ents and qual­ity in­gre­di­ents,” Pieper said. “The va­ri­ety is un­like any you’ve seen in a com­mu­nity-based set­ting. If the food doesn’t taste good, peo­ple won’t eat it, and if they won’t eat it, they miss the op­por­tu­nity to get healthy.”

For ex­am­ple, Open Hand vol­un­teers make their own tomato sauce rather than us­ing canned, which can be high in sodium.

“For peo­ple deal­ing with high blood pres­sure, that’s a real is­sue,” Pieper said. “We don’t use grade C chicken or grade C beef like you would typ­i­cally find in a com­mu­nity set­ting. We don’t pro­mote fad di­ets; our slo­gan is ‘ditch the diet.’ And not just to view food as a means to cure hunger or food inse­cu­rity, but re­ally to view food as a med­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion.”

The cost of pro­vid­ing daily free, healthy, high-qual­ity dishes is partly bal­anced by Good Mea­sure Meals. These are pre­pared

Even world-renowned mu­sic artist Sir El­ton John vol­un­teers with Open Hand. He de­liv­ered both the mil­lionth and 25 mil­lionth meals for the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“They said that a celebrity would be avail­able to de­liver the meal to me. My imag­i­na­tion went wild,” Craig Gustafson said in a video Open Hand filmed to com­mem­o­rate the mile­stone de­liv­ery. “At my door showed up El­ton John. What an honor. He’s been fight­ing this cause for 40 years and this guy’s just be­yond a celebrity. He’s an icon to us. “

Pieper and his team are ex­plor­ing sev­eral dif­fer­ent paths for Open Hand’s next step. They want to take a closer look at ship­ping meals to com­mu­nity cen­ters in ru­ral ar­eas as well as part­ner with hospi­tal sys­tems and health clin­ics to pro­vide di­rect ac­cess to their med­i­cally tai­lored meals.

Ed­wards-Pruitt is proud of how the group ful­fills his orig­i­nal dream of be­ing “there for ev­ery­one.”

“I’m 68 years old now. Maybe in three years, I won’t be able to take care of my­self, and it might be that Open Hand will have to take care of me,” Ed­wards-Pruitt said. “I don’t know, but it cer­tainly is a pos­si­bil­ity. And some­thing out there like that is truly amaz­ing.”

By DAL­LAS DUN­CAN —Open Hand founder Michael Ed­wards-Pruitt

De­cem­ber 9, 2016

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