November 27th, 2008
09:26 AM ET

Food for Friends

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Jill Dougherty | Bio
U.S. Affairs Correspondent

It’s 7 a.m. on a cold Thanksgiving morning and 500 volunteers at Food & Friends already are at work wrapping up turkey dinners – 3,000 of them. A whole roast turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans and three pies.

Another team of volunteers picks up the boxes and heads for their cars to deliver the dinners to Food and Friends’ clients: people with few financial resources and many health challenges, including HIV/Aids and cancer.

For twenty years, Food and Friends has been providing them with nutritionally balanced meals, three per day, delivered six days a week – for free. “People are making difficult choices in this community between paying for their medical care and eating,” says Craig Shniderman, executive director, “and the job of Food & Friends is to make sure that, for our clients at least, they don't have to make that choice.”

Most people are referred by their doctors; some hear about Food & Friends and call for help. Each person is evaluated by a licensed dietician who then designs the appropriate meals. There are 14 different menus. Some critically ill people cannot eat salt; others need special nutrients. Food & Friends also provides meals for dependent children. “We know the parents sometimes will not eat if they can’t provide food for their children,” says Shniderman.

We drive out with two of the volunteers, Stephanie George a researcher with the National Cancer Institute, and Larry O’Connor, a web designer. They started volunteering when they were at the University of Maryland.

“I think, especially with this economic crisis right now,” Stephanie says, “a lot of people are realizing how close so many people are from not being able to afford healthcare and not be able to provide yourself with the nutrition and the food that you need to make yourself as healthy as you can be, given your illness.”

“It kinda keeps you grounded,” says Larry. “It shows you how much the things you take for granted can truly be appreciated by other people.”

We arrive at the home of Balinda Cunningham. She is HIV positive and has cancer. She lives on the third floor of an apartment building without an elevator. Sometimes she feels so weak, she says, she crawls up the stairs.

Her face is beaming as Stephanie and Larry help her to unload a turkey and all the fixings. “I'm gonna let it sit in my special sauce,” she tells me. “It's a secret!!” Without Food & Friends, she says “my health would be bad and I would be eating whatever I could get. You know, being sick and on Social Security, it's just impossible, you know. With the food prices going up, you can't go out and grow a garden. The squirrels eat it up!!!” Today, Balinda is laughing.

Back at Food & Friends headquarters, a volunteer assembly line is boxing up more turkey dinners. A group of twelve young men from Norway, here on vacation, has shown up to help out. They’re packing up vegetables and gravy – and cheering as they do it.

By noon, the volunteers will have packed 8, 400 pounds of whole turkeys, 1,000 pounds of green beans, 1,000 pounds of mashed potatoes and 130 gallons of gravy. By the end of this year, Food & Friends estimates, they will have served an astounding one million meals.

“Yeah. It is a tough economy,” Craig Shniderman tells me. Food & Friends’ client list grew by 18% this year. “But the whole concept of Food & Friends is that people can, through common cause, take action to improve the lives of their neighbors, even in difficult times.”

The list of volunteers continues to grow; it’s now at 10,000. For Thanksgiving Day they had to turn away volunteers. People, Craig says, “just want to help.”

Filed under: Hunger • Jill Dougherty
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