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Food Pantry Delivers Reassurance for HIV Patients

For more than three decades, the CARE Center at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach has offered a food pantry for HIV patients.

These individuals, who are severely immunocompromised, need nutritious, fresh foods in order to stay healthy – although many of the clinic’s patients do not have access to this resource. The food pantry provides fresh produce, lean protein, healthy dairy, vegetarian options, and even the occasional treat – including healthy recipes – tailored to patients’ needs and taking into account cultural preferences, thanks to Registered Dietitian Tammy Basile, who runs the pantry.

Over the years, the pantry has grown to feed more than 70 consistent clients every other week, the majority of whom identify as LGBTQ+. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, something changed. Suddenly, these immunocompromised patients, many of whom relied on public transportation to get to the food pantry, stopped coming because leaving their homes posed too great a health risk.

Basile knew these patients still needed fresh groceries to be healthy, so, nearly overnight, the food pantry went mobile.

“The staff really stepped up,” Basile said. “The case managers, mental health providers, medical providers all reached out to their patients to ask if they needed food. Before we knew it, our 70 patients had increased to 150.”

Daryl Dimaculangan is a medical case manager at the CARE Center who jumped at the opportunity to continue serving his patients during the pandemic. He said delivering food also gave the patients a chance to experience the social interaction and contact with a caregiver that they missed out on by not visiting the pantry in person.

“We got to see our patients at their place of residence and get a feel for what they’re really experiencing,” he said. “We were able to chat with them – from a distance – just to check up on them and see how they’re doing. The face-to-face interaction was really powerful.”

At the height of the pandemic, Dimaculangan said he was sometimes spending eight hours in the car each delivery day. Now that COVID-19 vaccines are available, the number of deliveries is much fewer, but both Basile and Dimaculangan said the experience was a highlight of their careers.

“This was probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my 25 years with the CARE Center,” Basile said. “It just felt so good to give people food and watch them be able to eat. I can’t even explain the depth of how good it felt.”