Nourishing the Long Beach AIDS community

A food store established in the early days of the epidemic continues to help people with AIDS

By Brenda Duran
California Health Report

When the country was facing the growing AIDS epidemic three decades ago, members of Christ Chapel Church of Long Beach found that local residents afflicted with the disease were struggling. Too often, people living with AIDS at the beginning of the epidemic lacked basic necessities like food.

During the Thanksgiving holiday in 1985, church members including Margo Martinez decided to lend a helping hand by assembling food baskets and distributing them to AIDS patients in the church. The gesture was so well received that the church assembled weekly food baskets. The non-profit AIDS Food Store grew from those efforts.

“There were a lot of people that were disabled and unable to work, they were going hungry,” said Martinez, now interim director of the AIDS Food Store. “It didn’t take long to recognize there was a huge need, so we stepped up to help as much as we could.”

It didn’t take long for word to spread about the AIDS Food Store through a steady stream of referrals from local health and social service agencies.

Today, the AIDS Food Store continues to serve as a safety net for people with limited incomes.

Most of the clients are living off of Supplemental Security Income checks. Often, they are estranged from their families and friends. The store is the only support for some, Martinez said.

The organization determines who qualifies for free food delivery service after they can prove their HIV-positive status through their medical records and that they are living on less than $1,500 a month.

In the early 1980s, there were a high number of infected residents in Long Beach that mirrored the rest of the state, but with widespread HIV testing, the numbers have trended down, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services for the city of Long Beach found approximately 6,151 people are living with AIDS in the city of Long Beach.

In 2006, the department began tracking the number of people who were testing positive for HIV. Since the tracking began, the number of new HIV-positive cases reported in the city has been 1,435, according to the department’s HIV Epidemiology Report.

At one point, the AIDS Food Store served more than 200 people a month. Today, the center serves 60 to 70 on the first and fourth Saturday of the month with the help of numerous volunteers.

“All of the volunteers have their hearts in wanting to do this work,” said Martinez. “Like myself, a lot of these volunteers find their lives have been blessed by being of service to those in need.”

In addition to dedicated volunteers, the AIDS Food Store also receives support from numerous other local organizations.

Porter Gilberg, administrative director for The Center, a resource center for the Long Beach gay and lesbian community, said they often refer both volunteers and clients to the center. The Center also hosts food receptacle bins for drop-off donations.

“The AIDS Food Store is not only great for those who go hungry and don’t have enough to eat, it is also great for those who have been dealing with the astronomical medical costs that are associated with being diagnosed with HIV,” said Gilberg.

Ismael Morales, director of health services for The Center, estimates the annual cost of medical care for an HIV patient typically ranges from $30,000 to $50,000 a year.

“Organizations like the AIDS Food Store are vital when you see these numbers because they truly are a safety net for these people,” said Gilberg.

On a recent Saturday morning, more than 20 volunteers convened at the AIDS Food Store to distribute a variety of items, including fresh produce and fruit, perishable items such as yogurt, meat and frozen soups.

Local volunteer Larry Cruz said giving back through the AIDS Food Store is rewarding in more ways than one.

“I like the mission they have here, how dignified and respectful it is and what it offers to the clients,” said Cruz. “It’s fun and you see results of your help right away.”

Last month, the AIDS Food Store received a $5,000 donation from the AIDS Assistance Thrift Store with the AIDS Assistance Foundation Inc. The funds will be used to fill the gaps that the organization still has, from providing toiletries to emergency food for clients.

Since the organization does not receive any government funding, it relies heavily on agencies, foundations, groups, churches and individuals to assist them with ongoing donations of food and supplies.

For the past two decades, this support has remained steady and has allowed the organization to have a solid presence in the city with no end in sight, said Martinez.

“Often times I hear from our clients that they wouldn’t know what to do if we weren’t here,” said Martinez. “I always tell them we will be here until there is a cure, until there is no longer a need.”

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