Lunch Positive has now been running for 12 years, having proudly and directly evolved from grassroots HIV support that started almost 40 years ago at the much valued Open Door project.
When Open Door closed, its volunteers founded Lunch Positive as a new and forward-looking group, continuing the community-led ethos in new ways. Since then it’s gone from strength to strength, fulfilling an important community mission, crucially being led and provided by the community it serves, people with HIV.
While HIV treatments have massively improved, and the experiences and circumstances of the ’80s and ’90s are far less frequent, we do still encounter people with serious health issues – physical and mental, ageing and frailty, cancer, people who come along for friendship and support knowing that they are approaching the end of their lives. Stigma, challenging life circumstances and disadvantage, including poverty, insecure housing and homelessness remain, as sadly they have done for decades.
No one has greater insight into living with HIV than those who are themselves HIV+ and have experienced these issues. This is reflected in the quality and sheer scope of community-based support that’s provided by our volunteers.
Just before Covid hit, the charity was invited to present at the prestigious King’s Fund health think tank exploring the impact of our work, specifically being community-led. Soon after, Public Health England published similar good practice examples of our work.
Community news has also reflected the outstanding Covid response over the past year and a half, including almost 35,000 meals provided to people in need, consistent companionship and mental health impact, and the 14,128 hours given by volunteers.
As people rightly say, Lunch Positive is so much more than food, important as this is. Through the HIV lunch club and shared meal sessions, we bring people together in a unique, safe and supportive community space, helping people overcome challenges living with HIV, finding friendships and peer support, breaking the cycle of social isolation and loneliness.
Through these approaches, along with a range of additional community activities, a wide range of people’s needs can be met – all improving health and mental wellbeing. This includes an HIV food bank and outreach of food delivery to people experiencing vulnerabilities at home; HIV befriending and buddying scheme, helping people share peer-support, form supportive friendships and get practical help; winter support scheme providing extra heating and food to people in crisis; peer-support and wellbeing activities; telephone companionship, advice and information; helping people in recovery; and engagement with specialist services.
Our service users themselves came up with our slogan, ‘all about community!’ and among many things talk about how being part of Lunch Positive “is the family they no longer have”, has “kept them fed when they hadn’t eaten for days”, and “is the only place they feel accepted and belong”.
Our conversations with people experiencing mental health issues, sometimes including suicidal thoughts, frequently tell us our understanding and empathy are “life-saving” and “exceptional”. Through regular contact with people with very serious illness we hear the deep-rooted appreciation and benefit of being “community, not clinical” and “nowhere else where HIV is so much a ‘given’ and their only peer-support”. For many newly diagnosed “being part of something and knowing they’re not alone” is a pivotal moment in coming to terms with being HIV+.
Richard, one of our most recently joined service users, and now a volunteer, said: “I’m not exaggerating when I say that I credit Lunch Positive with rescuing me from a very dark and lonely place. As a single gay man I was alone. Moreover, my HIV status added another dimension to the challenges I was facing.
“I’ve been an ‘out’ gay man since my late teens, diagnosed with HIV in my mid-20s. However, having lived through some of the deadliest years of AIDS. So, as an older gay man I found myself alone, lonely and without purpose.
“Luckily a nurse at the Lawson Clinic referred me to Lunch Positive when we were chatting about my mental health during a routine blood test.
“It took all the courage I had to attend my first lunch. When I arrived, the team made me feel very welcome. Equally important, our shared experiences and medical concerns gave me the confidence to stay.
“Since then, my life has gone nothing but upwards. Lunch Positive not only provided me a safe space but also a means to participate in the community as a volunteer. I now have a set of new friends and new ways to add meaning to my life.”
We recently hosted a community lunch for a visit by Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS, whose moving commendation of Lunch Positive was “…you have built and you sustain a community of people with HIV. Awesome!”