Open arms staff and volunteers prepare meals at Open Arms of Minnesota's Minneapolis location.
Open arms staff and volunteers prepare meals at Open Arms of Minnesota's Minneapolis location. Credit: Open Arms of Minnesota

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May Vu had been on a waiting list for a kidney transplant for more than a year when a social worker noticed she appeared weak and thin. She was encouraged to turn to Open Arms of Minnesota, a Twin Cities nonprofit that delivers free meals to Minnesotans living with critical illnesses, in hopes of increasing her food intake. 

Vu, 68, initially objected. She didn’t want to have to cook extra meals. 

“They make it for you,” she recalled being told. “That’s if you’re OK eating American food.”

Vu has now been a client of Open Arms for more than two years. She is one of thousands of Minnesotans who receive medically tailored meals from the nonprofit. In March, she underwent a kidney transplant after almost four years on the waiting list, and is now trying to eat as much as she can to keep her strength up—something Open Arms is able to help her with.

As much as she appreciates the volunteer-delivered meals, she would also enjoy receiving more familiar foods, Vu said in an interview in her St. Paul home. Vu speaks Hmong, and spoke to Sahan Journal through Yia Yang, the culturally specific meal project manager at Open Arms.

Now, to better serve clients like Vu, Open Arms aims to collect more than 100 culturally specific recipes from the Hmong, East African, and Latino immigrant communities. 

The nonprofit is reaching out to those communities to make sure the recipes are as authentic as possible, Yang said. 

“We’re really trying to be genuine and grassroots in our approach, and really letting the input come from the ground,” he said. “Oftentimes, underrepresented communities don’t get to be at the table to decide what’s on the menu.”

Oftentimes, underrepresented communities don’t get to be at the table to decide what’s on the menu.

Yia Yang of Open Arms

The project presents an opportunity for immigrant communities to do just that. Open Arms is accepting recipe submissions for its culturally specific meal project until September 5, and is offering $200 for each accepted recipe. While the project is focusing on the Hmong, East African, and Latino communities, submissions from other cultural traditions are also welcome.

Do you have a recipe that could nourish people in your community? Here’s where to send it!

Ensuring that the recipes are community-sourced and authentic sets Open Arms apart from other groups embarking on similar projects, Yang said.

“Oftentimes, organizations or other people make genuine efforts to do this kind of work, but more often than not, they slap just a label on there that says, ‘Latin inspired,’ ‘Asian inspired,’” Yang said. “What does that really mean?”

Mango, lychee, and bok choy

Laura Strait is a registered dietician and the director of nutrition services at Open Arms. She and Yang worked with 3M Impact Healthcare and the state of Minnesota on a needs assessment to inform the direction of the culturally specific meal project.

They found that the communities Open Arms hopes to serve with this project are disproportionately affected by some of the chronic diagnoses that Open Arms tailors meals to, including cancer, HIV, and congestive heart failure. 

The culturally specific meals project would make sure that clients with those conditions were taken care of from both a medically and culturally informed perspective. 

“When someone hears about us, they want foods that are going to look like the foods they’re used to eating,” Strait said. “Food is such a comfort piece for folks, especially when they’re critically ill.”

Food is such a comfort piece for folks, especially when they’re critically ill.

Laura Strait of Open Arms

Some of the foods Vu said she’d enjoy seeing in her weekly deliveries are simply familiar produce: mango, lychee, bok choy, and other Southeast Asian and Asian fruits and vegetables. 

While she does her best to stomach American dishes and keep her food intake up, she does sometimes pass certain meals—like pasta—on to her children. They are much more used to American meals than she is, Vu said while seated in her living room, which is adorned with photos of her children and other loved ones.

Currently, over 60 percent of Open Arms’ clients are white. Strait hopes that the culturally specific meal project will make the program more appealing to members of the Hmong, East African, and Latino communities.

“We know that we have clients that are non-white that would love to eat meals that are reflective of where they’re from,” Yang said. 

‘Food is medicine’

Founded in 1986 by Bill Rowe, Open Arms was originally a one-man operation serving patients with AIDS. It has since become a large-scale venture that has delivered millions of meals to thousands of clients living with critical illnesses, all free of charge. 

“Food is medicine,”  Yang said. “What you put into your body matters so much.”

Open Arms now serves clients with a wider range of qualifying diagnoses—today, in addition to serving people living with HIV/AIDS, it offers meals to clients with multiple sclerosis, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), end-stage renal disease, and congestive heart failure. It also offers assistance to those affected by COVID-19.

Open Arms of Minnesota’s Minneapolis location. Credit: Open Arms of Minnesota

In June, Open Arms, which has a Minneapolis location, announced that a second location will open in St. Paul in the fall, a decision spurred partly by the COVID-19 pandemic. This will allow Open Arms to expand its service area to parts of Wisconsin and nearly double the number of meals it’s able to produce.

Next year, when Strait expects the new culturally specific menu plans to roll out, Open Arms will be equipped to serve not only a wider service area, but also a wider range of clients.

Food, and friendship

In the meantime, Vu looks forward to her Tuesday food deliveries. Her face brightened and she laughed when asked if she ever found herself making friends with the volunteers who bring her food each week.

While Open Arms mostly relies on volunteer drivers to deliver the 18,000 meals they make for clients every week, staff—including the CEO—frequently need to step in to make it all happen. 

Yang said he often steps in to bring Vu her meals. Because he’s the only Hmong driver who has delivered to her, they’ll often chat. 

But Vu said she’s happy to see any of the volunteers that show up each week. Even through a language barrier, a smile always comes through.

Open arms staff and volunteers prepare meals at Open Arms of Minnesota’s Minneapolis location. Credit: Open Arms of Minnesota

Do you have a recipe that could nourish people in your community? Here’s where to send it!

Open Arms of Minnesota is accepting Hmong, East African, and Latino recipe submissions for its culturally specific meal project until September 5. The submission form can be found on the nonprofit’s website.

While the project is focusing on the Hmong, East African, and Latino communities, submissions from other cultures are also welcome.

The form—which Yang soon hopes to have available in Hmong, Somali, and Spanish as well as English—asks submitters to provide their name and contact information with their recipe. Submitters are also invited to share the story and meaning behind their recipe.

Undocumented submitters may request to be paid in gift cards for up to two recipes; anything more requires W9 tax form documentation.

Open Arms will accept recipes based on how well they meet four criteria:

  • Recipes meeting or being modifiable to meet Open Arms’ medically tailored meal specifications for items such as salt, sugar, and carbohydrate levels. 
  • Whether the ingredients are sourceable from Open Arms’ suppliers. 
  • Whether Open Arms’ production team has the capacity to execute the recipe.
  • Whether the recipe is scalable.

The menu-building process will include conversations with the submitters as well as Open Arms’ vendors, dietitians, and research-and-development team to make sure recipes are both authentic and suitable for those with specific medical needs. 

“It’s going to be that really delicate balance between maintaining the integrity of the recipe while still making it appropriate for our clients,” Strait said.

While Open Arms’ goal is to roll out the new recipes before July 2023, Strait said she hopes it will happen sooner. “My hope is early next year, kind of more in the January, February area,” she said.

Noor Adwan was an intern at Sahan Journal. She is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of Minnesota.