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Meals Service Expands Beyond Its Bread and Butter

Project Angel Food had been known for feeding those with HIV or AIDS. Now it also offers food to people who have other serious ailments.

August 15, 2004|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

A daily diet of junk food became yet another health hazard seven years ago for James Fraley when his kidneys failed after bladder cancer surgery.

The retired Azusa city worker, who lives alone in Glendora on a fixed income, could not eat a hamburger without feeling like he could barely get out of bed for days.

When a kidney infection sent him to the hospital in March, his worried daughter and ex-wife told him to call Project Angel Food.

The 15-year-old organization, known for providing and delivering food to people seriously ill with AIDS, has expanded its services to people with other terminal or serious illnesses.

Since May, Fraley has driven each Wednesday to a Claremont church to pick up healthful meals for the week.

"Once in a while, I go off this diet and I eat a big double hamburger, and for two to three days I'm sluggish and I don't feel good at all," the 67-year-old said. "Then I go back on the diet and I feel just great again."

A year ago, Project Angel Food launched a pilot program for providing hot or frozen meals to people suffering from illnesses such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, diabetes and heart disease. In July, the program became official, and Project Angel Food serves more than 120 people who don't have HIV or AIDS.

"Volunteers say it reminds them of the early days of the AIDS epidemic," said John Gile, who is executive director of the organization. "A lot of these people are so desperate and homebound."

Gile said he expected the new program to grow by 30% this year.

Project Angel Food has been "blessed with generous donors" who have allowed it to have the kitchen capacity, volunteers and resources to expand, he said.

The project began in September 1989 in West Hollywood as part of the now-defunct Los Angeles Center for Living, a drop-in support center for people with long-term illnesses.

At first operating on a $15,000 budget, the organization served about 80 AIDS patients confined to their homes.

Today, it serves more than 1,200 people with HIV or acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

In the early days of the organization, more than 1,600 meals a month were prepared at the rented kitchen of Crescent Heights United Methodist Church in West Hollywood.

Today, Project Angel Food prepares more than 1,200 meals daily and has an annual budget that exceeds $4 million.

Over the years, people with other serious illnesses, including a man with brain cancer, had occasionally called Project Angel Food for help.

"It was very difficult for us to say, 'Sorry, you have the wrong disease,' " Gile said.

"We wouldn't turn people down if they were an urgent-need case," he added.

Almost two years ago, the organization began talking about the possibility of reaching out to other seriously ill people.

Health professionals, donors, volunteers and clients met over months in focus groups to discuss the possibility, Gile said.

Some people had reservations, he said.

"Part of the process was very fractious," he said. "Some people firmly believed we should only serve people with AIDS. Other people were concerned about limited resources."

Some people worried that expanding to a non-HIV/AIDS population might mean "a blurring of our vision, that we would lose our way, and that we would end up losing our focus on people with AIDS," Gile said.

Ed Rada, vice chairman of the organization's board, said the new efforts should ease some of those worries, while also lessening the stigma that some people with AIDS fear will be attached to them when Project Angel Food delivers meals.

"We find that when we get out to some areas of Los Angeles, there are people who are afraid to have Project Angel Food seen delivering to them, because they're afraid people will put together that someone there has HIV or AIDS," Rada said.

"Moving forward in this way, we become an organization that serves seriously ill people, and in fact, we believe we'll be able to better serve some communities where people are suffering from HIV and AIDS," he added.

The organization has enlisted the aid of health service providers throughout Los Angeles -- including nurses and other hospital employees, the city's Human Services Department and people who deal with the homeless -- to find people who qualify for the free meals.

Merrily Newton, a Project Angel Food board member, said the expansion of services would be an "opportunity to take some of those hard lessons and important skills which were developed at the height of the AIDS epidemic that hit the city, and translate them for the greater good."

Many of the new clients are bedridden, while others are able to drive short distances to designated areas to pick up their meals.

Beatriz Diaz, 71, has diabetes and lives alone in a Hollywood apartment. She learned of Project Angel Food about eight months ago from a young man with AIDS who lived in her building.

Now, every Friday, she waits for a delivery of food that includes vegetables, turkey meals and even healthful tamales.

"When you get to my age, at any moment you can go at any time. But we all want to live a little bit longer," Diaz said. "This helps me eat better so I stay healthy."

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