William Harper sits in a leather recliner facing the TV. His back is to the refrigerator; his walker is within arm’s reach.
“I haven’t really been doing a lot.,” Harper said, his voice scratchy. “I just started walking a lot today, because I just want it to heal.”
Paul Ferdinand, Harper’s partner, cuts in.
“Well, a typical day for Princess is … ” Ferdinand said and Harper laughs from the living room.
“She gets up around 8:30 or 9:00, has breakfast and swallows all her medication, watches a little bit of TV and then we start going. But, you’ve seen our stairs — they’re just killer stairs —so we’re not to stairs yet,” said Ferdinand.
Harper is two weeks out of Penn Rehab in recovery from a knee replacement. But today, he and Ferdinand are in high spirits — their MANNA meals arrived this morning.
“We clear the day on Wednesday,” said Ferdinand. “Sometimes they come first thing in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon. We look forward to it. It’s part of our routine.”
For the past year, Ferdinand and his partner, Harper, have received a weekly shipment of breakfasts, lunches and dinners from MANNA, the Fairmount-based nonprofit that delivers free meals to the chronically ill.
Harper has lived with HIV since 1985, but recently, his health took a turn for the worse when he began falling down.
“I’d be walking to the store and I used to fall in the middle of the street,” said Harper. “Luckily Philadelphia has caring residents. There would always be someone to help me up and sit with me.”
Harper said the doctors never gave him a definitive diagnosis, but they thought the falls might be related Parkinson’s disease. He was deemed disabled.
Ferdinand, 64, is also dealing with health problems. After doctors discovered a cancerous growth in his vocal chords in 2008, Ferdinand left his job and began claiming disability. The growth was removed, but Ferdinand was left with “terrible neck and back problems.”
“I couldn’t walk from here to the grocery store,” said Ferdinand. “I can do maybe three blocks. So, of course we’re very grateful of MANNA. It’s been a lifesaver for us.”
The couple was set up with MANNA through their social worker at Mazzoni Center. Harper qualified as an HIV patient and Ferdinand was able to receive meals as his primary caretaker.
MANNA’s dietary plans, 11 in total, are based on the food-as-medicine movement, a method of treating and preventing disease through proper nutrition.
“We felt better, immediately,” said Ferdinand. “Because there was always a vegetable, always a fruit, always a this, always a that.”
Before getting on MANNA, the couple remembers dinners being pasta or convenience foods.
“We tried all the different pizza-delivery places, so we know which one was good, which was ehhh,” said Harper.
Harper and Ferdinand both follow MANNA’s standard diet, a common prescription for many HIV patients, whose health concerns include weight fluctuations, low BMI and sometimes the onset of other infections such as pneumonia.
MANNA’s standard diet combats these factor into a well-balanced meal.
“We give HIV-patients a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables and whole grains, so they can build up their immune system and stabilize, if not improve, their weight,” said Tonya Cooper, MANNA’s registered dietician.
If an HIV patient’s weight isn’t responding to a standard diet, Cooper will sometimes prescribe a high-protein diet to move things along.
For Harper, the MANNA meals appear to be working: He’s maintaining his weight, which is what his doctor wants to see.
“I’ve lost weight, which was the point,” said Ferdinand. “For me, it was the vegetables. Unless it’s put in front of me, I’m very much a pasta type of guy, or junk.”
With a rotating selection of 21 frozen meals delivered weekly, MANNA provides options.
“And the variety — the variety is great!” said Ferdinand. “Shopping for that order would be a mess, because there’s so much in it. We’re very grateful to MANNA.”
Ferdinand and Harper don’t know how long they’ll be on MANNA meals, but after a year, they’ve picked out their favorites.
“We like the Southwestern dinner, and the meatballs are fabulous,” said Ferdinand. “He won’t even let me see them. You can see him going through the delivery when it comes and then he’s stuffing it in the back of the freezer, not even letting me know that it came in! Like the turkey tacos…”
“Ooooh turkey tacos are good!” said Harper. “They go right in the back of the freezer.”
The couple have been supporters of MANNA’s work since the early ’90s, when the organization was a seven-person team delivering hot meals to HIV/AIDS patients. Ferdinand and Harper remember supporting MANNA’s annual Pie in the Sky fundraiser.
“You know, I always thought, What a fabulous thing,” said Ferdinand. “But, you never think, Oh they’re going to deliver the meals to me. And so when the shoe’s on the other foot, you really see what wonderful work it is.”
Before Ferdinand got ill, he worked as a flight attendant for Air France. William was a server and bartender at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
“I was known as dependi-Bill,” said Harper. “If somebody called out, I was the only waiter/bartender authorized to work in any bar or restaurant in the airport.”
They met in Washington D.C. in 1993. Ferdinand was starting his job with Air France and would fly routinely out of BWI.
“He was on his way to the bathroom in a bar [when I first saw him], and he’s still on his way to the bathroom,” said Ferdinand, cracking up.
The couple agrees that as gay men, getting older has taken a toll, especially before becoming eligible for Medicare.
“I can’t tell you what it’s like,” said Ferdinand. “They’ll look at you and go, ‘I need to give you that test, but I can’t.’”
“A lot of Philadelphians, especially in the gay community, didn’t expect to live this long and were caught off guard with savings and insurance, where they just don’t have it. I mean, I was in that situation,” said Ferdinand. “You didn’t know if you were going to live to the next day, let alone until you were 64.”
For Ferdinand and Harper, MANNA’s services are a temporary solution. All clients are placed on a meal plans for a three- to six-month period, then reassessed.
“Let’s say they qualify because they have HIV and they lost a lot of weight,” said dietician Cooper. “Come recertification, we want to see that they are not losing weight anymore and hopefully they’ve gained some weight. If that’s the case, then we discuss the stop date.”
No recent hospitalizations is another sign that a client may be ready to stop receiving MANNA meals.
“Our goal is to teach them about their diet and empower them, so that when they do come off the program, they have a sense of how they should be eating,” said Cooper.
Ferdinand is optimistic about what’s to come.
“It sounds corny, but you know, people are living longer, so 64 is the new 44, I hope,” said Ferdinand.