Bob S. insists that his mother back in Virginia made the best chicken soup ever, but he's willing to admit the homemade version delivered to his Van Nuys apartment is a close second.
The delivery is part of the mission of Project Chicken Soup, an all-volunteer group that cooks, packages and personally delivers kosher meals twice a month to patients living with HIV and AIDS. It might be a chicken breast or a casserole, along with the soup, salad, fruit, dessert or even a protein drink.
Bob, who's 61 and lives alone, said the food is crucial for him, but it goes deeper than that. "If it wasn't for Project Chicken Soup, there wouldn't be a connection to the Jewish community for some of us, and I wouldn't be cooking for myself," he said. "I don't have the energy or the interest or the desire to eat."
For Project Chicken Soup President Rod Barn, whose client list has grown steadily from 20 in the early '90s to more than 100, the task of meeting a growing demand when charitable donations and grants are harder to secure is a never ending challenge.
"So far, we haven't had to turn anyone away, and we don't want to," Barn said. "A lot of our clients say when they get our food, it reminds them of better times. They smell the chicken soup, and it brings them love and warmth, and that's what we're about."
It's a similar story elsewhere, from small programs to large, as medical advances mean more people are living better and longer with AIDS and HIV. Whether it's Project Chicken Soup; Aids Service Foundation (ASF) Orange County, with its 1,500 clients; St. Vincent's Meals on Wheels, which serves 50 to 75 HIV and AIDS patients a day out of 1,650 clients; or Project Angel Food, which cooks and delivers 1,200 meals daily, they have to do more with less.
Larry Kuzela of ASF Orange County said this "has always been a struggle and continues to be. We've never had a waiting list, and we've never turned anyone away, but we have a reserve fund, and we've had to dig into our reserves." Sister Alice Marie of St. Vincent's was only half joking when she said, "I pray a lot" to make sure there is enough money.
At Project Angel Food, considered a model for this type of service nationally, Executive Director John Gile said, "We've added 800 new clients in 2002 alone, yet we have over 20,000 donors, with the average gift being $38. We always seem to get the gift when we need it most."
"Since we're based in Hollywood, we have strong support and generosity from the entertainment industry, which this year alone will help us raise a half-million dollars," he continued. "We're proud to say that if you call Project Angel Food today, you get a meal tomorrow"
On the other side of the table, groups that give grants and funding to AIDS service providers would like to do more, but they also must compete for donations. For example, MAZON, A Jewish Response to Hunger, which receives the majority of its donations from individuals, plans to give away approximately $3.4 million to 250 organizations nationwide in this fiscal year. Project Angel Food and Project Chicken Soup, which is under the umbrella of Jewish Family Service, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, are among the grant recipients.
Grants Director Mia Johnson said, "The sense or urgency is not as strong as it was in the '80s and '90s, so it's a challenge for these organizations to make sure people understand their ongoing needs and the evolution of those needs"
The nutritionally balanced meals that are provided can literally make the difference between life and death for those struggling to stay healthy, and that's why Steven F. of Santa Monica, said of Project Angel Food's work: "It's very crucial. Every day, I think of it as a gift. It is something I look forward to, and it provides me with good, cooked food that I wouldn't and couldn't do for
For more information about Project Chicken Soup, call (323) 655-5330 or visit www.projectchickensoup.org; for Project Angel Food, call (323) 845-1800 or visit www.angelfood.org; for MAZON, call (310) 442-0020 or visit www.mazon.org .
Phil Shuman is a reporter and substitute anchor for UPN 13 News. He is also host of "Your Council District Close-up" on L.A. Cityview Channel 35.