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A Year Unlike Any Other.

By: Alexandra Alford MS-MPH, RDN, LD Laura Samnadda MS, RDN, LD Michelle Kuntz, MS, RDN, LD Kristen Avera MS, RDN, LD, CDCES

Open Hand Atlanta knows what it's like to be challenged by a serious public health crisis, as our roots take us back to 1988 amidst the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Our founder, Michael Edwards Pruitt helped cook and deliver meals to those who were dying of AIDS and too sick to cook for themselves.

This pandemic has led us to reflect on our roots as an organization and focus on our mission to always find ways to serve those at the mercy of our social safety net. We continue to be inspired and amazed at the creativity harnessed by small businesses and non-profits to pivot and remain viable while the rest of the country shut down. Open Hand and Good Measure Meals (GMM) are no exceptions.

During this past year, we had to pause services to our GMM customers so we could focus solely on our medically-fragile friends and neighbors most susceptible to COVID-19. Open Hand/GMM significantly modified our operations as the demand for our meals increased like never before. We eliminated in-person events, we closed our campus to non-delivery volunteers, and shifted our nutrition education to our new virtual tele-nutrition platform. We appreciate the patience of our clients, our volunteers and our GMM customers as we normalized our new processes and completed construction at Open Hand to accommodate the large increase in medically-tailored meal referrals.

As GMM works hard towards our relaunch in April, we thought we would share what Open Hand Atlanta has been up to over the past 12 months.

When the pandemic first began, we needed to get meals out, and quickly.  Which meant that we needed every pair of hands in the organization. Admin staff were reallocated to the meal packing line, the warehouse and the kitchen. Like many other food suppliers in the country, we experienced food shortages. We greatly simplified our menus and shifted to provide emergency shelf- stable boxes and fresh produce boxes to ensure our clients were able to access safe, healthy food in the event their meals were delayed.

Then we began to find our rhythm. The supply chain began to improve, and we made the decision to deliver our meals frozen so that we could ship them to rural counties in dire need of our meals. As a result, we saw a 146% increase in our meal deliveries. And in August, we increased the depth of our menus, and continued to prepare meals in our traditional home-cooked, medically-tailored format.

In August 2020, construction was complete on the Jesse Hill Market, as part of the Food as Medicine Partnership --a collaboration designed to help bridge the critical gap between health and nutrition by ensuring patients and families of Grady Health System, as well as staff and the local community, have access to healthy, affordable foods.. Open Hand Atlanta/Good Measure Meals, Grady Health System, and the Atlanta Community Food Bank formed the partnership in 2017 to bring the vision of a one-stop nutrition center to life on the Grady's downtown Atlanta campus.

Currently the market serves healthy sandwiches, salads, soups and snacks, as well as fresh local produce. This café is also home to live and virtual cooking demonstrations and nutrition classes hosted by the Dietitians of Grady Health System as well as a food prescription program for Grady patients who are living with diabetes.

Throughout the pandemic, Open Hand has also been providing meals to individuals in the short term, such as those discharged from the hospital after recovering from COVID or undergoing treatment for diabetes. We have also provided additional, long term meals to seniors through special contributions and funds from generous donors.

Additionally, Open Hand has found innovative ways to allow volunteers to interface with our clients in the community. Though we have not been utilizing volunteers on our campus, keeping our culinary and operations staff safe, volunteers continue to participate in our mission through contactless meal deliveries to our safely sheltered Open Hand clients.

Our nutrition services department, including our GMM Dietitian, have been up to exciting things as well. At the start of the pandemic, we needed to figure out how to shift our duties as dietitians to a virtual space, which was previously only on our “wish list” to provide additional virtual services. On a normal day, pre-pandemic, we were traveling to clinic sites, clients’ homes, corporate offices, or senior centers, all of which involved meeting face-to-face with those most immune compromised. Changing our nutrition programming to virtual programming allowed us to continue to connect with our clients so they could obtain nutrition education while staying safe at home or working remotely. With this came some challenges! Many of our clients do not have consistent access to technology, nor do they have reliable transportation. This became an opportunity for us to aid in closing the gap of the lack of transportation access and technological access, all while trying to keep our clients safe during this transitional period.

Our new telehealth platform enables secure phone or video calls, group classes and modules, medical billing, and sharing of paperwork. This allowed our nutrition services team to become fully functional in this virtual space. We have hosted dozens of virtual classes and corporate nutrition seminars using this platform, including 6-week intensive programs like Chronic Disease Self Management Program (CDSMP) and Cooking Matters, without missing a beat! We have collaborated with our distribution team to allow for home delivery of fresh produce to those attending our classes to best mimic the experience the participants would receive with an in-person program. Professional chefs were brought in to provide prerecorded cooking demos for participants to follow along with on their own schedules. In addition, we have held hundreds of client nutrition consults, or Medical Nutrition Therapy, via Zoom or telephone since the beginning of the pandemic. Lastly, we have connected with our seniors via teleconference on a near monthly basis since late spring, presenting new nutrition topics each month along with handouts and recipes.

We are proud of how far we have come and are very excited to bring these developments with us to our services post-pandemic. These innovations have allowed us to bridge gaps that will help us to reach more patients and clients moving forward but will also allow us the flexibility to continue innovating and changing as we find what the future holds.

Open Hand Atlanta is also excited to relaunch Good Measure Meals in April 2021 and offer a new and enhanced model of service. Our meal plans will offer more choice and flexibility, and align with our values of healthy living. Customers will continue to have access to virtual consults with our Registered Dietitians Nutritionists, and as soon as we are able, we will bring their expertise in nutrition and overall health back in-person!

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