Phil Harris is a striking man; tall, elegant, with precise, languid movements. In his right ear hangs an exquisite baroque lantern. Inside that stands a tiny gold, male figure.
An artist and designer, Phil proudly displays more examples of his work on the wall: a fashion photograph, press clippings, a detailed gold, gem-encrusted cross that wouldn’t have looked out of place at the Costume Institute’s Heavenly Bodies exhibition last year.
“I made that piece when I lived in a shelter,” he says. “I made it during a dark time. I was trying to commit suicide, there was blood, there was sweat, there was anger, everything went into that piece. However, it turned out beautifully and I think that’s what art is all about. It’s an expression of who you are in the moment.”
Phil is one of more than 7,200 people across the five boroughs who receives regular, tailored meals every year through God’s Love We Deliver. He’s HIV positive (undetectable) and, following multiple suicide attempts, he has no sense of taste or smell, making cooking and eating incredibly difficult.
“I lived on the streets of New York for nine months, and I never thought I would ever hear AIDS being a part of who I was. Then when I lost my business, my home and everything, I just gave up. But I’m a living witness that you can go through a dark place and, if you learn how to be still and connect with something that’s much higher than you are, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Born in Indianapolis, beaten by his father, he never learned to read and still suffers some learning difficulties.
“I’m somewhat illiterate,” he says. “So many people are faced with that same challenge and are afraid to speak about it, but I have found a way for all of this to work for me so I see it truly as a blessing.”
Introduced to jewelry design by a female impersonator – “He said, Phil, you know you’re very creative. I think you can do this.’ And I said, ‘OK, I’m going to play with it and see.’” – he came to New York more than 30 years ago and worked as a stylist for the late singer Phyllis Hyman.
He built up quite a name for himself as a designer. He fell in love, opened up a bakery with his partner … but when they broke up, he fell into a deep, deep depression.
“I tried taking my life 15 times in 2003,” he says. “All of that is part of my story. My story is raw. And if people are not ready to hear raw, then they really don’t want to hear a story.
“I was at rock bottom,” he says. “Then I met a psychiatrist – that I still have today – and he became my angel. The way I see God is through his spirit, through his energy, through his blessings. He’s the one that stopped me from making those type of decisions. He came into my life and he changed everything.”
He was building up his strength emotionally. But, physically, he still struggled to eat. “Everything tasted like water,” he explains. “My doctor said, ‘Phil, you have to eat.’
“I remember when I first started receiving GLWD, it was just a blessing. It was something I truly looked forward to. But it was also a way for me to connect with eating healthy.”
GLWD began in 1985, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, with just one hospice volunteer, Ganga Stone, delivering a meal on her bike to one man, Richard Sale, who was too ill to cook for himself. Now they home deliver more than 1.8 million meals every year, with a fleet of 22 vans, give more than 4,000 nutrition counseling sessions, and work with 14,000 volunteers from a purpose-built base in SoHo.
Using their knowledge of food as medicine, each meal is low sodium, containing lean protein, whole grains, and fresh vegetables, then is further tailored to the individual client’s needs, based on their illness, treatment, and preferences. For instance, some clients take ten medicines a day, so how food interacts with their medication is extremely important.
“As drug cocktails came on the scene in the 1990s and people were living longer,” says Emmett Findley, of GLWD, “we recognized that we had this model of food as medicine, of nutritious food, and nutritional education, and counseling for people who are sick that we could apply to all types of other illnesses.”
So clients with cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s, MS, and cancer, as well as HIV, are all catered for, without cost to the end user, and with no waiting list.
“When we started, we were serving primarily young, gay men who were living with the illness. Now 63% of our client base are age 60 and over; 40% are age 70 and older. So, many of our clients live with not just one diagnosis but multiple. And it’s a case of how do
we address their nutrition needs and their meal needs if someone has both cancer and HIV, cancer and multiple sclerosis, etc?
“We can modify our meals 16 different ways, but if you combine that, that’s almost a million different combinations. We can do low fat, low sugar, low spice, renal meals for clients who have kidney disease. We can also modify the texture. So, for someone who has trouble chewing and swallowing – if they’ve gone through radiation for throat cancer, for instance – we can mince or puree their meals.
“And, not only do we serve our clients who are living with severe and chronic illness, but we also serve their children and their senior caregivers, because we recognize that being sick and hungry is a crisis and that if you’re having difficulty caring, shopping, or cooking for yourself, how can you possibly care for others?”
The only qualifications to receive meals from GLWD is that you live in the New York City metropolitan area, you have a home address, and that you’re too sick to shop or cook for yourself. And their team of dietitians and nutritionists help advise similar organizations all over the country through the Food is Medicine coalition.
“We all work under this umbrella belief that food is medicine,” says Emmett. “And, ultimately, that food is love, and we know how much a nourishing meal can mean to someone. Like Phil was saying, he might feel loved or feel really important, but it’s that nutrition component that is really, really key.”
“I want to live,” says Phil, as we prepare to leave him with his lunch. “In spite of all of that that happened in 2003, I made a decision to live. And I have so much to live for.”
THE VOLUNTEER’S STORY
Name: Norma Grant, former teacher.
Years of service: 23 years
“It was the late 1980s and I decided I needed to work for an organization that was helping people with AIDS. I started at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and was working with one client, a little girl who was 12 years old and had AIDS. She passed away and it was very tough.
“Through GMHC I heard about GLWD. So I decided that maybe I could chop vegetables and be useful in that way rather than in this very, very intense, personal kind of relationship. So that’s what brought me to GLWD. Although, then it became a personal relationship because I’m delivering to the same people very often.
“I’ve done different kinds of jobs. Right now, I deliver two days a week. Then I go into the kitchen on Thursday mornings and help pack out the meals and do special events.”
A version of this article previously appeared in the June 2019 issue of W42ST magazine. Stay in touch with W42ST and be first to read stories like this when you join our daily newsletter at w42st.com.