Open Arms provides lifeline of healthy meals

Prepping salads
Volunteers Kris Nielsen (left) and Lora Grgich chop produce at Open Arms of Minnesota. Open Arms was founded in 1986 to serve people with HIV and AIDS. It now also provides meals for people living with Multiple Sclerosis, ALS, and over 60 kinds of cancer. It serves 800 people each week, bringing about 11 meals per person. The meals are free.
Julie Siple / MPR News

Moses Renault-Moses moves slowly to answer the door of his apartment these days, but he is pleased to greet visitors, especially when they come with ingredients for his Thanksgiving meal.

• PHOTO GALLERY: Open Arms volunteers prepare Thanksgiving meals

"Being that you guys were coming with this, I thought well, 'I'm going to get my stuffing going,'" he said when Kevin Smith arrived.

Smith is a volunteer for Open Arms of Minnesota, a nonprofit that makes sure Minnesotans with life-threatening illnesses have food for the holiday -- and the nutrition they need all year long.

The organization provides a lifeline to Renault-Moses, who has been fighting HIV since the mid-80s and has a heart condition that led to mild heart attacks. Decades of medical treatment have sapped his savings, and because of his declining health he had to stop working.

Eating well is important to Renault-Moses, who calls good nutrition an obsession and credits it with helping him stay alive.

But Renault-Moses, 62, lives below the poverty line, and can't afford the healthy food he knows he should eat. Lacking the energy to go from store to store to seek the best prices, he's grateful for Open Arms, which provides him with meals not just at Thanksgiving, but every week.

Moses Renault-Moses thanks volunteer Kevin Smith.
Moses Renault-Moses (left) thanks volunteer Kevin Smith for delivering a Thanksgiving meal from Open Arms of Minnesota on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. Renault-Moses has been living with HIV since the mid-1980s, and is able to eat healthy meals thanks to weekly deliveries from Open Arms.
Julie Siple / MPR News

"If it wasn't for Open Arms, I probably wouldn't eat a noon meal, or I would munch on something that's not that healthy," he said. "I can dress up and sit in a chair and look very healthy. But it takes me a long time in the morning to get bathed and dressed. It's just everything that I do seems to take a lot longer than it used to."

Open Arms launched in 1986, to bring food to people living with HIV or AIDS. Volunteers now also deliver to people with multiple sclerosis, ALS, and cancer. Each week, they serve free meals to more than 800 people, including caregivers and families.

"It's a pretty simple concept," said Asei Tendle, the organization's food services director. "High quality, nutritious food helps people get better."

Tendle said medical treatment needs to go hand in hand with enough food, and good nutrition. Open Arms offers nine different menus, each designed to meet a particular need. For example, it has a menu for people with cancer who have trouble with nausea and acidic foods. The menu for people with kidney problems limits sodium, phosphorus, and potassium.

"When you have a chronic condition, your needs are greater for whatever the reason may be," said registered dietician Gwen Hill, who works with each Open Arms client to make sure they receive proper nutrition. "Maybe you need more protein, more calories, more of a certain vitamin. But if you're not getting that, you're depriving your body of what it really needs to heal."

Volunteers pack up pumpkin pies.
Volunteers Debbie Jones (left), Tom Roark (middle), and Steve Fader pack pumpkin pies at Open Arms of Minnesota on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. Open Arms will provide 600 meals to people living with life-threatening illnesses this Thanksgiving.
Julie Siple / MPR News

About 80 percent of those who receive meals live below the poverty line. Without help, some of them compromise when buying food, Open Arms Deputy Director Jennifer Van Wyk said.

• PHOTO GALLERY: Open Arms volunteers prepare Thanksgiving meals

"That's when we see clients choose things that aren't healthy because they're cheaper," she said. "Fast foods or things that come out of a package that are going to last longer on two dollars than that head of Romaine lettuce."

Open Arms prides itself on its fresh produce, lean meats, and breads baked from scratch. On Thanksgiving, that doesn't just go out the window.

"No! We just might throw a little more whipped cream on the window," Van Wyk said. "We still want to be mindful about the ingredients that we're selecting."

The Thanksgiving meals are low in sodium and include organic, free-range turkeys. Volunteers delivered 400 bags of ingredients so people can cook themselves; another 200 hot meals will go out Thanksgiving morning.

But the holiday meal won't be low-fat. After all, it is Thanksgiving. The deliveries also will include pumpkin pie, Tendle said.

Thanksgiving celebrations, he said, can be important for someone who is living with an illness that may not be improving because it allows them a break from suffering and provides a joyous moment with others.

"Part of recovery and part of overall well-being is also mental," he said. "And I think that being able to communicate with family, or bring people together, it's a part of recovery. It's a part of overall well-being."

That's true for Renault-Moses, who loves to cook. The Open Arms delivery gives him enough food to cook for friends.

• PHOTO GALLERY: Open Arms volunteers prepare Thanksgiving meals

"When you live like this for a long time, self esteem gets to be an issue," he said. "Being able to share it with friends, it's a gift I can give. It's a gift of love. It's a way I express love to people.

That's why tomorrow, he'll throw open the doors for any friend who wants to stop by.

"When I'm here alone, I have the company of the dogs and everything," Renault-Moses said. "But it's a long stretch from August to Thanksgiving, when I spend a lot of time alone. And I look forward to that turkey."

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