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The success of Denver’s Vivent Health, a branch of the Wisconsin-based HIV care nonprofit, is in the numbers. Colorado’s viral suppression rate—how many HIV-positive patients have undetectable viral loads—sits at 61 percent, below the national average of 66 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At Denver’s Vivent Health, 96 percent of patients have achieved that benchmark. You might think the organization’s extensive clinical services are wholly to thank for this outcome, but the nonprofit appears to have discovered a critical component of treatment that’s completely removed from doctors’ offices: food.
“Without food…people don’t take their medicine,” says Lyssa Towl, vice president of operations at Vivent’s Denver location. Indeed, studies show that a lack of stable access to food is associated with reduced adherence to antiviral prescription regimens, increased transmission-risk behaviors, and ultimately, lower survival rates. Vivent Health, which previously operated as Rocky Mountain CARES, implements a team-based, comprehensive approach to HIV treatment that includes primary, dental, and behavioral healthcare, as well as social services like case management and housing assistance. When it comes to nutrition, that means maintaining a robust food pantry.
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The pantry, which started in 2018 and expanded in 2020 when the branch relocated from Rose Medical Center to Washington Virginia Vale, has experienced a significant spike in usage this year. In 2022, it served a little under 500 clients, but that number has already jumped to 600 this year—a 20 percent increase. The pantry has seen a bigger increase in users than any other Vivent service.
Why? Director of social services JC Goodhart believes that rising food costs due to inflation are a major factor. Those increases have incentivized more people to take advantage of the pantry, which is available to anyone who is HIV-positive and lives at or below 500 percent of the federal poverty line (that translates to an annual income around $70,000).
Vivent Health uses funds from grants, donations, and in-house revenue channels (such as its pharmacy) to purchase a variety of whole ingredients and ready-to-eat foods from the Food Bank of the Rockies, Denver Food Hub, and local grocery stores to stock the pantry. Shoppers can find everything from Roma tomatoes and almond milk to cleaning supplies and pet food. According to Towl, visitors appreciate that the food pantry lets them fill up their own boxes and that new initiatives, like a community-supported agriculture program with Denver-based Ekar Farm, keep the shelves stocked with fresh produce.
Food pantry perusers won’t just find aisles full of ripe tomatoes and in-season veggies. Vivent Health also aims to carry culturally specific foods for its patrons, like corn husks and chile de árbol. (Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino/a/x Coloradans are disproportionately impacted by HIV.) The staff also tries to satisfy unique requests when they can. Once, a food pantry shopper from Africa who had never handled individual chicken pieces requested a whole bird instead. Towl found one in the freezer for him.
The organization also wants to make the service as accessible as possible. For example, even though the pantry is a pickup facility, employees will occasionally hand-deliver orders for homebound patients. Patrons will also find a rack of take-as-you-please snacks outside the front door—a deliberate move to reduce newcomers’ internalized stigma around receiving free food, which might prevent them from stepping inside.
Goodhart says that by getting people into the food pantry and interacting with them one-on-one, Vivent’s staff can better identify and serve their needs. “By building that rapport,” he says, “that leads to success.” And the pantry can serve as an entry point for other needed services, like SNAP benefits assistance.
Altogether, the nonprofit’s efforts, which also include preventative measures like STI testing, PrEP services, and a mobile syringe exchange, aim to shrink local rates of HIV transmission and disease progression. “We’re big enough to make an impact,” Towl says, “but we’re small enough to know everyone’s name.”
Vivent Health operates at 5250 Leetsdale Drive, Suite 300. For more information on its services, visit viventhealth.org.