For Les Ralston, 1991 was a dark time. The AIDS crisis had ravaged the gay community, and many of his friends were dead or dying. No effective treatment had been found for HIV, and many people were afraid to go near those with the disease. “A lot of people were dying at home without any food,” Ralston recalled.
So when he saw a note on a billboard seeking volunteers to help a D.C. organization, Food & Friends, deliver meals to people with AIDS, Ralston, a systems analyst for the IRS, signed on. By 1995, he had quit his government job and was working full-time for the organization.
He never left. At 68, Ralston is one of several people, including its executive director, who began working there at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis and cannot imagine leaving. Now in their 50s, 60s and older, they saw the organization evolve from one with 100 clients to one that now feeds more than 2,800 mostly low-income residents of the Washington metropolitan area each year.
Working together over the decades, they share layers of memories, from the gaunt faces of early clients to the period in which the diminishing of HIV-positive clients allowed Food & Friends to expand to serve people with cancer, diabetes and other conditions.
The timeline of AIDS deaths in the District looks like a mountain with a sheer face on the right side. That’s the late 1990s, when breakthroughs in HIV treatment finally reversed the tide of deaths, making it a manageable condition for many. The number of HIV-positive people who died in the District plummeted from 894 in 1995 to 221 in 2016. Last year the city registered a sharp decline in new infections, and most of the 2016 deaths were from non-HIV-related causes, according to a report released last week by the District of Columbia Department of Health.
Still, the disease has not gone away. In fact, because it is no longer a death sentence, the number of people living with HIV in the District has mushroomed over the last three decades. It is now stands at around 13,000 people, or 1.9 percent of residents. And because the virus and the drugs that treat it take a toll on the body and are often associated with other health problems, HIV-positive people still make up 29 percent of Food & Friends’ clientele. The organization runs on both private donations and public funds.
Sitting in its headquarters in Northeast D.C., Ralston, who now works as an expediter, reminisced with Tim DeVine, 61, a pastry chef, and Charles Battle, 56, who manages the groceries-to-go part of the deliveries.
All have been there since the early or mid-1990s, when they didn’t know if a particular client would be alive for the next delivery.
“I remember knocking at the door a number of times, and I just assumed he wasn’t there,” Ralston recalled of one recipient in the early days. As Ralston turned around to leave, he heard the jingling of a chain.
The client opened the door, leaning on a cane.
“He didn’t look old, but he was emaciated, wearing glasses,” Ralston said. “He managed to smile, and he said, ‘Thank you for waiting for me. I have a hard time getting to the door.’”
The scene was all too familiar to Ralston, who lost about half of his friends to the disease and who at one point found himself delivering meals to his former partner. DeVine, too, had seen many friends die in their 20s — including his roommate.
But the disease didn’t hit Battle on a personal level until after he started working at Food & Friends, during an AIDS bicycle ride.
He noticed that a colleague, an upbeat guy named Brent, had a flag on the back of his bike, and so did several other cyclists. “I didn’t really know what that was; I didn’t really know anyone with AIDS,” Battle said. He looked down and his voice caught. “It’s hard to talk about this. . .”
It turned out that the people with flags on their bikes were “positive pedalers,” meaning they had HIV. When Battle learned that, “I was like, ‘I’m in the right spot,’ and to this day it sticks with me. I think that’s why I’ve hung around here so much.”
A lot has changed since then. Along with a change in clientele, the food they once delivered now sounds like a junk food addict’s fantasy.
“Heavy cream, butter, anything that would put weight on the clients,” said DeVine, a self-taught baker who previously managed a liquor store in the District.
Now, Pop-Tarts have given way to healthier fare tailored to each client’s needs, including those on diabetic, low-dairy, heart-healthy, vegetarian or puree diets — though DeVine still bakes his signature chocolate chip cookies and makes cakes with rainbow-colored sprinkles for clients’ birthdays.
In a long kitchen, beside a giant soup kettle and racks of oversized ladles and scoops, DeVine had wrapped up his morning baking. Battle filled grocery bags with canned carrots, spaghetti sauce and butter beans, while Ralston sat at a computer, organizing who would receive what kind of meal in bags coded with colored stickers.
The three have been colleagues for so long that “between us it’s like clockwork,” Battle said. They work with more than 50 other staff members and 8,500 people who volunteer there each year. Once mostly composed of gay men, the volunteer force now includes individuals, families and school groups from the area and around the country.
As they get older, the three have faced their own health challenges, and the organization has helped them. Ralston even temporarily became a client while he was recovering after a kidney transplant. They play bocce on lunch breaks in summer and provide 3,500 Thanksgiving dinners in November.
And all three remember the moment when the tide of AIDS deaths reversed.
“We used to have an easel with names on it (of clients who died), and every week or so we had to tear it off because it was full,” Ralston said.
One day he noticed the page had not filled up for a while. Thinking maybe someone had forgotten to update it, was stunned to discover the real reason. They’re not dying, they’re getting better, he was told.
“I almost didn’t believe it, because I didn’t know how long it was going to last,” he said.