Project Open Hand: The House That Ruth Built

On the eve of its 25th annual gala, the food-delivery nonprofit is set to expand its "Meals With Love" program statewide.

“You don’t awaken hope. You create hope,” says Mark Ryle, executive director of Project Open Hand. “It’s there. You just have to get the crud out of the way. That’s what we do.”

More than 30 years after founder Ruth Brinker began serving meals to seven of her neighbors who were stricken with AIDS-related illnesses, Project Open Hand has grown to serve more than 2,500 meals every day, and bags an additional 200 sacks of “medically tailored” groceries for people well enough to cook for themselves. The hope Ryle speaks of is almost charming in its simplicity: The act of showing people that someone out there cares about them can profoundly improve physical and mental well-being.

Having expanded to cover San Francisco and Alameda counties, and from serving HIV-positive people to virtually anyone who’s unwell — from diabetics to people living with congestive heart failure to elderly people who may simply be isolated above all else — Project Open Hand is at a crossroads. As political as the subject of health care remains, one thing that everyone can agree on is that the U.S. system spends too much money on it. And in addition to feeding and cheering up lonely, unwell people, Project Open Hand’s work has the auxiliary benefit of reducing unnecessary hospitalizations among its clients by 63 percent.

California has taken notice, so on Jan. 1, the organization will scale up dramatically, working with partners in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, and two Northern California counties in a pilot project to bring its model of client-focused do-goodery nearly statewide. If successful, the initial $6 million grant will increase to $25 million one year later.

But a few weeks before that rolls out, it’s time to celebrate the organization’s successes. On Thursday, Dec. 14, Cat Cora — the renowned Iron Chef who also contributed a recipe to Open Hand’s 2013 cookbook — will deliver the keynote address at the Hand to Hand Holiday Luncheon, the organization’s 25th such event where its own executive chef (Adrian Barrow) will cook alongside the Fairmont’s Oscar Gonzalez. Recognizing four outstanding supporters without whom Project Open Hand would not be able to do what it does, Ryle notes that it’s also a wonderful opportunity to have a drink in the middle of the day, then get a massage.

Kidding aside, among this year’s honorees are Gilead Sciences, the pharmaceutical company that’s been Project Open Hand’s strongest financial champion (and a provider of scientific know-how). Having turned a 5K race called Plate to Plate into a juggernaut with 22,000 runners scrambling to AT&T Park, Giants Enterprises is the Most Outstanding Community Partner Award winner. Longtime volunteer Linda Glick will receive the Ruth Brinker Visionary Award, while Barbara A. Garcia, the director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, will be honored with the Community Advocate Award.

Without Garcia, Ryle says, Project Open Hand’s statewide expansion likely would not have happened. But it begs the question of why, if its model is so successful, larger organizations like Kaiser haven’t simply absorbed it?

Ryle admits that would be a “cheap solution to cost,” but believes that relative smallness confers additional advantages in that “we’re in regular face contact with our clients.

“We’re partners in their health,” he adds. “They begin to believe that they can get better.”

Project Open Hand sits at a number of intersections of the philanthropic world. Beyond the public and private revenue streams, its mission is a product of data-driven initiatives and hard science as much as the unquantifiable things that Ryle cheerfully describes as “mushy.”

“We’re going to have some misfits and look like the island of broken toys, and that’s OK,” he says.

At the same time, Open Hand doesn’t serve everyone. Plucky as it is, it can’t save the world alone — but more importantly, its clients need a doctor’s referral to be eligible, and that depends on their demonstrating a track record in keeping up with their medications. It’s also very difficult for Open Hand to serve unhoused populations. Rather than further marginalize already marginalized groups, though, it works with partners like the API Wellness — with which it shares a building on Polk Street — to provide storage lockers for homeless people to use while getting a meal.

Whereas grassroots efforts like, say, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ spirited presidential campaign crow about micro-donations and people power, the effort required to process thousands of checks can sap vital resources from even the scrappiest nonprofit, detracting from its core mission. Every 501(c)(3) relies on the stability of cyclical disbursements from deep-pocketed donors, but Open Hand recognizes that meaningful contributions will always arrive in small-dollar amounts, too. And the funding will always be a mixture of public and private monies, with Ryle emphasizing the importance of the private realm. It’s important that people see the good they can do and take ownership of their fellow San Franciscans’ daily struggles without psychologically offshoring the problem to an opaque bureaucracy.

Open Hand is also witness to an evolution in the ethos of giving. Millennial volunteers are changing things, and Ryle compares his role to that of a shepherding uncle.

“They’re looking for that place to fill,” he says. “I think they need to be nurtured into being philanthropic, but they’re helping us until they find their sweet spot, and we’re trying to help them find that here. We help them find out how to fix things that aren’t on a screen or in code. They love that.”

Consequently, Project Open Hand’s 125 active volunteers generate about $2 million in in-kind labor that would otherwise require additional fundraising for staff positions. The result is thousands of nutritious meals prepared from scratch daily, using fresh produce. They’re not pre-packed lunches thrust at people like MREs dumped on a platoon in the field; Open Hand is chef-driven.

“Chef is still a chef,” Ryle says of Barrow, a professional who later took ill and became an Open Hand client before rising through the ranks. “We don’t put out vats of things — or gruel.”

State Bird Provisions it isn’t, but if you don’t like broccoli, you don’t have to eat broccoli. The organization takes pride in making sure people feel looked after.

“Providing the option makes people feel like they have the power,” Ryle says. “Most of our clients have few choices they get to make on their own. Most of their lives are impressed upon them. They get to come in here and choose what they want, or say, ‘I don’t like fish. Can you take it out of my diet?’ Sure, because you deserve the same amount of dignity as anyone else.”

Project Open Hand’s Hand to Hand Holiday Luncheon
Thursday, Dec. 14, 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m., at the Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St. $350-$5,000;

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