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HIV fundraiser Dining Out for Life turns 20

‘Food is medicine,’ A Loving Spoonful’s executive director says

A Loving Spoonful’s Lisa Martella and Friends for Life’s Sheena Sargeant don aprons for Dining Out for Life. Credit: Dining Out for Life/Charles Zuckermann

When Lorne Mayencourt brought Dining Out for Life to Vancouver from the United States 20 years ago, AIDS was still one of the leading causes of death in Canada.

“I remember when we had 20 clients die in one day,” says Easter Armas, the founder of A Loving Spoonful.

A generation later, HIV/AIDS is not the death sentence it once was, thanks to protease inhibitors; however, the need for access to nutritious food and alternative therapies has increased.

“People think there’s a cure for AIDS and there really isn’t,” says Sheena Sargeant, executive director of Friends for Life. “Our challenge is to bring in all the other pieces that are more than taking one pill or a handful of pills every day to keep people living vibrant, healthy lives for many years to come.”

Lisa Martella, A Loving Spoonful’s executive director, points out that with people living longer with the virus, both organizations have had to increase their capacity.

A Loving Spoonful gets referrals from doctors every week. Last year its prenatal program helped six HIV-positive mothers deliver six healthy babies. They recently doubled their space to make room for “incredible” freezers and coolers that allow them to deliver extra produce and waste less food.

“Food is medicine,” Martella says.

Sargeant is thankful for how far we have come around learning how to live with the virus but notes the many ways HIV/AIDS continues to affect the community, including poverty and inadequate access to nutritious food.

“We’re just coming out of one generation in terms of the lifespan of people with HIV,” she says. “They aren’t dying right away as they did in the ’80s, but we don’t know what’s around the corner.”

Between the two organizations, the money raised by Dining Out for Life helps deliver an average of 100,000 meals a year and funds 50 to 60 holistic wellness programs, despite limited government funds. Events like Dining Out for Life and Art for Life account for approximately 60 percent of Friends for Life’s revenue.

This year, in honour of its 20th anniversary, Dining Out for Life is offering a new Platinum Table program where the host of a party of 20 or more will receive a pair of commemorative wine glasses.

Though the face of HIV/AIDS may have changed, Dining Out for Life still attracts businesses and individuals who either witnessed the urgent need for direct services for people with HIV/AIDS in the early days or who care about their friends and still want to protect them from the virus today.

“We’re living with one generation living with the virus,” Sargeant says, “but we have the support of many generations.”