Food is medicine
Matthew Pieper of Open Hand at the nonprofit's current headquarters. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Open Hand — a 35-year-old nonprofit that delivers nutritional meals to people in need – is having a year for the record books.

In August, Open Hand delivered its 35 millionth meal. Today, it is announcing it is only $2.1 million away from reaching its $19.5 million goal for its “The Healing Power of Food: A Healthy Life Delivered” capital campaign.

The campaign will fund Open Hand’s relocation to its new headquarters at 1380 W. Marietta Street adjacent to the Grove Park community overlooking the Westside Park. Open Hand will be moving from its location at Armour Drive NE, where it has been based for nearly 29 years, first in one building and expanding to a second building in 2011.

Rendering of Open Hand’s new headquarters near Grove Park. (Special: Open Hand.)

“We are at a pivotal place in our history,” said Matthew Pieper, Open Hand’s executive director since 2011. There have been major milestones over our 35 years, but we are now at another jumping-off place to a new horizon.”

Pieper was an Open Hand volunteer long before he joined the organization as an employee 15 years ago. 

“It is our largest-ever capital campaign. By far,” said Pieper during an interview at Open Hand’s Armour Drive headquarters. “We raised a $4.4 million campaign in 2009 to renovate this building.”

About five years ago, the nonprofit realized it would soon outgrow its current space of 29,000 square feet of space. That was before the pandemic, when Open Hand became a key player statewide, delivering meals to people who were sequestered in their homes. 

“We have grown to be the largest community-based supplier of home-delivered meals and nutritional counseling in the Southeast and one of the largest in the country,” Pieper said. “We have been positioning ourselves for the last 10 years to be the preferred provider of medically tailored meals and nutrition counseling in the state of Georgia.”

As luck would have it, Tony Conway of Legendary Events was looking to sell his former headquarters on the Westside because he was consolidating his catering business in Buckhead.

“It was really the perfect facility for us,” said Shirley Powell, who soon will complete her two-year term as chair of Open Hand’s board. “The whole facility is amazing. And Tony Conway is passionate about the organization.”

Pieper said Conway, who has been a long-time supporter of Open Hand, sold them the property at below market value. And he joined the capital campaign committee to help raise the money.

The new facility is 43,000 square feet. It has a commercial kitchen as well as enough space for cooking classes and a workforce training program. It also has eight bays for delivery trucks compared to just one bay at the current facility.

Mayor Andre Dickens (center) helps prepare meals at an event celebrating Open Hand’s 35th anniversary on Aug. 23. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

“This campaign is really about expanding our infrastructure so we can reach individuals who need our services,” said Powell, who began volunteering shortly after moving to Atlanta to work at Turner Broadcasting in 1992. Her current employer, Cox Automotive, also supported Open Hand and encouraged her to join the board. 

That was not a hard sell. Open Hand was founded in 1988 by Michael Edwards-Pruitt to deliver meals to people suffering from AIDS and HIV, then a mystery disease that was devastating the gay community in Atlanta and across the country.

“My brother passed away from AIDS,” Powell said. 

Open Hand, originally called Project Open Hand, was run by volunteers for its first two years, working out of a church kitchen — St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church — on Lavista Road. 

As the organization grew, so did its mission. Today, it designs and prepares menus that meet the standards of the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, as well as the U.S. Veterans Administration.

Pieper described it as the belief that “food is medicine.” Eating nutritional foods is critical to treating and preventing various health-related issues.

“We make our meals from scratch,” he said. “We don’t use processed food. We don’t use canned goods because there’s too much sodium content. Our service is medical intervention. As the world, the country and our state have begun to understand the importance of healthy nutrition and better health outcomes, we have been on a growth trajectory.”

Open Hand now cooks, prepares and delivers at least 5,000 meals a day, according to Pieper. About 65 percent of its clients are 60 years old or older, and that includes people with HIV.

In addition to the $8.4 million to acquire the property, Open Hand is spending $6.6 million to renovate the facility. It is expected Open Hand will move into its new home in the spring.

Matthew Pieper stands next to a painting of Open Hand’s founder – Michael Edwards-Pruitt. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

“When completed, it will be a state-of-the-art, community-based kitchen and campus,” Pieper said. Open Hand will provide a culinary training workforce development program in the new facility. It will double its warehouse space, and it will significantly increase the potential for cold storage. The campaign also includes three new refrigerated vehicles that will be added to its fleet of delivery vans. That will allow Open Hand to grow delivery from 25,000 meals to 39,000 meals a week.

So far, the philanthropic community has gotten behind the campaign, which is chaired by Johanna Ellis Reisinger, who made the $1 million lead gift.

“That set us up for success,” Pieper said. The Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation, part of the Robert W. Woodruff family of foundations, made a $3 million grant. Other major donors include the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and the James M. Cox Foundation. Open Hand also expects to receive New Market Tax Credits later this month that will provide $3.2 million toward the goal. 

Still, it needs to raise another $2.1 million as the campaign goal was increased because of rising construction costs and supply chain issues. “The last $2 million are the hardest to raise,” Pieper said.

“I chaired our first capital campaign almost 20 years ago,” Jack Sawyer, an investment advisor who has been affiliated with Open Hand for 27 years and served in various roles, said. “We have come so far and do so much good for our clients, who are medically challenged and live at or below the poverty line.”

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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  1. Mr. Peiper is sadly misinformed about his own kitchen and nutrition data. He states of Open Hand Atlanta:

    “We don’t use processed food. We don’t use canned goods because there’s too much sodium content.”

    This is not the case. Literal pallets of industrial-sized canned goods from beans to tomato sauces, to pudding and other desserts arrive at Open Hand every day and are opened by volunteers who work in the kitchen. This reliance upon canned goods and processed foods is glaringly obvious to any volunteer who has had to stand at an industrial can opener for hours at a time opening literally hundreds of canned ingredients. Processed foods like breaded, fried fish sticks, processed turkey breasts and marinated chicken are regular parts of Open Hand’s menu rotation. The chicken breasts are then vacuum marinated in the Open Hand kitchen in homemade marinades which use tricalcium phosphate, the exact same chemicals used by commercial processed food companies.

    Mr. Peiper is either poorly informed about his own company’s processes or is being disingenuous here. Open Hand throws away hundreds of cans from canned goods every week and uses processed ingredients in many meals. This can be verified by any kitchen volunteer.

    1. Mr. Sage’s response is 100% correct, unfortunately. I’ve seen it firsthand when I’ve volunteered. It’s embarrassing that Mr. Peiper continues to use this false narrative to raise money. It completely belies the good intentions of the organization.

  2. Open Hand is the best thing that he’s ever happened for people in Atlanta who need food delivered to their homes..
    I worked with the organization for many years before I moved full time to San Miguel. I still worked with open hand to support its mission and to help people who need healthy meals to survive and to thrive in Atlanta.
    Open Hand is one of the most important non profits in the Atlanta area and Open Hand is one of the most helpful organizations for people with food insecurities in the greater Atlanta area.
    Please consider working as a volunteer preparing meals, packing meals,,and or delivering meals to those less fortunate than you.
    I promise you that it will be worthwhile and that you will feel better about yourself..

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