At Open Arms of Minnesota, Nutrition Matters

Would you laugh if I told you the key to human potential is a bowl of vegetable soup? Or a plate of meat loaf? A chocolate chip cookie? If the food is part of a delivery from Open Arms of Minnesota, then it is indeed key to someone’s independent and meaningful life.

Since 1986, Open Arms of Minnesota has run a meal delivery program for Twin Cities residents living with, and affected by, chronic progressive illnesses. (Full disclosure: I’ve volunteered in their kitchen for close to twelve years.) Its largest and original client population is people living with HIV and AIDS. Open Arms also serves people with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), MS, breast cancer, and similar illnesses. The meals can be the difference between staying healthy and spiraling into disability. For many, this means living at home instead of going to a hospital or nursing home.

Few people would dispute that feeding sick people is an ethical thing to do. What’s more, though, Open Arms is a shining example of a community that does well by doing good: every dollar that goes into this nutrition program can be shown to result in a savings of money—public or private—spent on health care.

In 2008, at least 84% of Open Arms’s 1128 clients were known to be living on less than $20,000 a year. That’s a tough position for a person living with, say, HIV. A study from late 2006 put the annual undiscounted cost of managing that disease at around $25,600. Most of that cost is for the antiretroviral medication that is supposed to keep patients healthy.

If hospitalization is required, those costs are daunting. To get a notion, use to check out the costs in your town for a patient with pneumonia, a digestive disorder, or nutritional issues. At Hennepin County Medical Center, the hospital charges for such admissions range from around $10,000 to $23,000.

If a person’s health continues to fail, a nursing home could be necessary. The national average monthly cost for that is about $5,500. Assisted living, at over $2,800 a month, and home health aides are less expensive options but require the sick person to be able to manage more for him or herself.

Clearly, if people are to receive adequate care, public funds or private health insurance will be picking up some or all of these costs. So wouldn’t it be in all our best interests to help keep them low?

Enter proper nutrition. Good nutrition is crucial to effective treatment for HIV/AIDS. A properly nourished person has the healthiest possible immune system. He or she is better able to resist and recover from the secondary infections that accompany HIV. Good nutrition also appears to increase the efficacy of HIV/AIDS medicines. It can help slow the progression from HIV to AIDS.

All this means that if people are well fed, they can spend less time being sick, and their illness is milder for longer. It can mean that they spend less time in hospitals or nursing homes.

In 2008, Open Arms’s program budget for its 1128 Twin Cities clients was $1.234 million. The organization incurred another $466 thousand in management and fundraising costs. So let’s say that the cost of feeding the clients is $125 per month per person. I calculate that the service breaks even if, each month, 26 people—just over 2 percent of the clientele—who would otherwise have required nursing home care can stay home. That seems like a good return on investment.

As well as nourishing the body, the meals provide a ripple effect of mental health. “We know how critical nutritious food is to help our clients maintain and improve their health. But we also know that for some of our clients, food is not necessarily their biggest concern,” says Kevin Winge, Open Arms’s executive director. “The meals we cook and deliver not only provide nourishment; they reduce our clients' stress—which also contributes to their overall health.”

And health, ultimately, is a gain that can’t be quantified in dollars. When people keep their health and independence, they can keep a job or a friendship. They can keep being someone’s mother or father, someone’s life companion, someone’s grandparent, someone’s brother or sister. They can keep their place in the world. There can be no price tag on that.

I can only guess about you, but my place in the world involves making and eating food. If I get to choose between paying for one person’s hospital stay and paying for 300 people’s dinner, I know which one I’d pick every time.

Amy Boland is a Twin Cities writer and food enthusiast. You can read more of her food musings on her blog Cook 'Em if You Got 'Em.