Okay, relax, this is not a public-service announcement. But imagine, just for a minute, having AIDS. The weakness, the fatigue, the constant infections -- you own them. What you don't own is what's necessary for an immune-deficient body to fight the myriad opportunistic illnesses: proper nutrition. In fact you can't even afford a loaf of Wonder bread. And even if you did have the money for it, you barely have the energy to toast a slice, let alone go out and shop for it.

Enter the Food for Life Network (FFLN), a thirteen-year-old Miami-Dade organization that provides meals for PWAs -- people with AIDS -- and up to five of their dependents, if those dependents are the children of HIV/AIDS parents who can't provide for them. Since 1987 FFLN has served more than one million free meals to its frequenters, whom director of development Berne Teeple labels "clients." He notes, perhaps unnecessarily: "Food is a big asset to PWAs. It allows for the continuation of [medical] care." Executive director Peter Ramos concurs. "I cannot imagine dying from AIDS and dealing with having no food," he says simply.

But the organization, currently located in a dingy 5000-square-foot building on a dilapidated block of NE Second Avenue (it moved from downtown two years ago), is not a soup kitchen. For one thing the building doesn't even have a kitchen. (It does have a small lounge where the staff and volunteers can lunch.) Meals are purchased from, not generally donated by, caterers and food purveyors such as Sysco. Which is not to say companies like Sysco don't do their part; the distributor regularly lends its trucks to accommodate the food donated at various fundraisers, such as the Bob Marley festival a couple of weeks ago, and it stores FFLN food in its warehouses.

For another thing, though solely dedicated to people with AIDs, FFLN doesn't just give away food to anyone who shows up at the door (though no one with HIV status will be turned away without something to eat). Most of the clients are referred to FFLN by hospital caseworkers, who help identify and diagnose PWAs. Like a hospital patient, a new client is subjected to an intensely personal examination, but the questions run more toward "Do you have a place to live?" and "Do you have a microwave?" than "Do you smoke?" or "Do you take drugs?" And thanks to a recently installed full-time dietician and a part-time nutritionist, clients are eventually analyzed on a one-on-one basis, so their needs can be more easily met.

The third degree is necessary. FFLN runs three separate programs: The Food Bank, Home Delivered Meals, and Nutrition Services. The Food Bank is for ambulatory patients who still feel relatively chipper. These clients walk in, choose from a blackboard menu, and receive a bag of groceries appropriate for a week's worth of good, filling breakfasts and dinners, a total of fourteen meals. When I visited FFLN, choices were rather limited -- no fresh fruits, soups, or breakfast entrées were available -- but the produce of the day was baby romaine and Vidalia onions.

If it seems luxurious to be able to select free gourmet foodstuffs from a menu, some of which healthier folk gladly pay top dollar for in Epicure and Laurenzo's markets, keep in mind that the high-end items tend to be donated by organizations like Farmshare that have surplus. Apparently there's only so much baby romaine the market will bear. As for dry goods like cereal, canned fruit, frozen pancakes, and drinks such as shelf-stable milk (to name a few of the staples), "there's no point to providing a bad product," Teeple says. "We buy name brands and offer choices so people will eat, not throw the food away."

Home Delivered Meals is for patients who are not physically able to leave their houses. Fully prepared frozen meals are delivered once weekly, and patients can choose from the American or Latin menu. Teeple and Ramos are so confident in the quality of the meals that they offered me a package of dinners, including "South Beach veggie burger," "Tuscany roast beef," and "Hungarian stuffed peppers." (Damn if I wasn't tempted, but I declined and went to Publix instead.) Although the organization possesses only two vans and two full-time drivers, who also tend to the maintenance of the vehicles (which have as many as 80,000 miles on 'em), FFLN manages to deliver anywhere from 325 to 475 seven-meal packages per week.

The pair is justly proud of FFLN's newest department, Nutrition Services. Aimed toward educating patients, it attempts to prevent wasting, one of the most common effects of AIDS. Wasting, when the muscle mass in the body decreases and fatty tissues and water increase, is probably the biggest threat to HIV patients, because it can be happening internally and exhibit no external signs. Recently Serono Pharmaceuticals donated a $7000 Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis machine, which measures the body's composition of water, muscle, and fat.

Since I took the test I can attest to the fact that the procedure is painless; electrodes are strapped to one bare foot and one hand. But some patients are reluctant to submit. One fellow emphatically refused while I was there. I thought it was because, unlike most HIV/AIDS patients, he was overweight, and the test will only be accurate if you're weighed and measured first. But in the end, it turned out he didn't want to take off his shoes. The staff thought maybe he hadn't showered; personally I suspected a radical color of toenail polish.

For all its recent successes, FFLN still struggles. The organization depends on volunteers, who can range from groups of motivated women like the National Association of Negro Business Women to the managers of Publix, who bring their employees on Saturdays, group volunteer days. They "look at it as team building," says Ramos. But more often individual volunteers are court-ordered DUIs doing community service. Thus the level of energy among some workers can be sluggish. "On the other hand," Teeple notes, "some of these people have tremendous skills that we can utilize."

Aside from a constant call for workers, FFLN needs more space. The organization is gunning for a 10,000-foot building with a kitchen where it can cook its own meals, which will cut down significantly on costs. To that end FFLN has launched a capital campaign. The March fundraising activity will be a "millennium dinner" sponsored by the Miami Beach Chapter of the Chaine Des Rotisseurs, featuring food stations representing each decade of the past century. Another will be a gala "Chefs Against AIDS" dinner in April, including a cocktail party at Johnson & Wales University and limousine service to a local restaurant for a four-course dinner (Norman's, Blue Door, and China Grill are likely to be among them). The purpose, of course, isn't to feed you so well that you feel guilty when you contemplate the circumstances of PWAs. But in the end, I suppose it can't really hurt.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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