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HIV and Hunger

Someone’s in the kitchen: Ken Meyer (from left), Marc Cohen, Michael Sibouyeh, Randy Young, and (front) Melissa Cruz and Luis Rivera at AIDS Foundation Houston’s Stone Soup Revival Food Drive, held September 18 at Riva’s Italian Restaurant.

AIDS Foundation Houston’s Stone Soup redesigned as ‘donation-based, volunteer’ food pantry
By Nancy Ford

The message conveyed by Nathan Kesselder, manager of special events, community relations, and media for AIDS Foundation Houston (AFH), was a sobering one.

“In 2010, the local Ryan White Planning Council, which oversees the allocation of federal Ryan White funds, voted to eliminate funding for urban food and nutrition programs. This action has resulted in AFH’s Stone Soup program losing 95 percent of its funding as of August 31,” Kesselder wrote in a statement to the press. “In response to the crisis, AFH is restructuring this program to a donation-based, volunteer-driven design.”

The council’s funding directly impacted how AFH had operated Stone Soup for more than a decade, Kesselder said.

“AFH, as an agency, made a decision at that time to continue to operate Stone Soup, because we know that it’s an essential resource for some of our clients,” Kesselder told OutSmart in September. “So it has now become a donation-based, volunteer food pantry. It’s still supplemental, so it’s not meant to be a primary source of food and nutrition for individuals living with HIV/AIDS.”

The reduction in funding to Stone Soup has been in ongoing decline, though the rate of individuals infected with HIV needing Stone Soup’s services grew; in July 2009, AIDS Foundation Houston announced the program had seen a more than 40 percent increase in the need. At that time, OutSmart reported that in order to meet the needs of its current client base, that previous April, AFH had closed enrollment to new clients, as well as those attempting to renew their Stone Soup card after receiving 12 months of the pantry’s services, as well as reduced food program access for existing clients from once per month to every other month. AFH responded by providing affected Stone Soup clients information on 10 other area food banks (most affiliated with churches) where they could receive service.

“The Houston Food Bank is another resource for people,” Kesselder said. “But Stone Soup is the only food bank in the city that is solely intended for individuals living with an HIV or AIDS diagnosis.”

Kesselder said AFH intends for the new model to become something of a “choice model” over time as Stone Soup builds it inventory. “What that means is, every month our clients will be able to come and shop and pick from a variety of different food categories,” he explained. “So right now we’re doing about 10 to 14 items.”

Available food items include protein sources like canned chicken, canned tuna, and peanut butter, as well as fruits and vegetables, fruit juices, cereals, pastas, and grains. “So really, they’ll continue to get the food,” Kesselder said. “The biggest change is, we are not going to be able to give them the vouchers [they can use at] Fiesta and Kroger. But our rural clients will continue to receive the vouchers.”

Houston ranks eighth nationally in the number of total reported AIDS cases, accounting for more than 95 percent of HIV and AIDS cases within Harris County.

Kesselder describes the typical Stone Soup client as an individual who lives on probably less than $10,000 a year, and is either receiving food stamps or has recently applied for food stamp assistance. “A lot of our clients would probably qualify as having an AIDS diagnosis, versus having HIV. A majority of the individuals that use Stone Soup are probably African-American.”

Kesselder estimates that approximately half of Stone Soup clients are LGBT.

In response to the Stone Soup redesign, a number of upcoming food drives and related efforts are being spearheaded by community groups and AFH’s community partners. The Positive Posse, a group of like-minded volunteers representing several social groups, has recruited members from the Pass-It-On Charity Organization, GLBT Friends Coffee and Dinner Group, Culture Inside Loop 610 Group, and the LGBT Couples Houston Group, and others to assist in fundraising. “These groups represent over 1,000 members who are coming together as volunteers, donors, and concerned friends and members of the Houston community to try to make a difference for hungry people in our great city.”

To help meet the needs of those with HIV and AIDS, the Positive Posse, the Colt 45’s, and PWA Holiday Charities
presents their annual Fall Harvest Festival, a food drive. The festival, a benefit
for RMCC Food Pantry, is scheduled November 6, 7 p.m., at Brazos River Bottom (2400 Brazos St.). The Positive Posse is also planning its second annual Posse Bus, with Coushatta Casino as its destination. The day of gambling in Kinder, Louisiana, is co-sponsored by the casino and Walgreens. Log on to pwaholidaycharities.org for more information.

The Positive Posse also hosts Divas Dish Dessert, November 5, 3 p.m., at Riva’s Italian Restaurant (1117 Missouri St.).

“We’ll also have food drives at all of the Walgreens inside the perimeter here in Houston,” Kesselder said. “F Bar is doing a monthlong food drive in November. We’ve also reached out to team captains from AIDS Walk, and many of those individuals have gone back to the teams and companies and started the process of helping us organize food drives. And food is coming in.

“We also need a continuous stream of volunteers to organize the food, distribute the food, do the client intake, and that sort of thing. We’ll probably have a tremendous amount of support as we get closer to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, just because people have a tendency to think about that.

“I think what will be the challenge for all of us is to always make sure that people are remembering that this is a need that doesn’t go away,” Kesselder said. “Stone Soup is certainly something that’s very important, and we’ll continue to do it as long as we can.”

Individuals wishing to donate non-perishable food items to AFH’s Stone Soup program, or make a cash donation, may do so by logging on to aidshelp.org.


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