By Katie Fallon

In celebration of its 20th anniversary, one Buckhead-based nonprofit icon in Atlanta has made a host of positive changes to better serve its clients.

Project Open Hand was founded in 1988 as a grassroots home-delivery meal program for clients with HIV/AIDS. The organization has since expanded its mission to include specialized meals for clients with a multitude of chronic and critical diseases.

In coordination with its 20th anniversary, Project Open Hand has re-branded itself by changing its name to simply Open Hand. The organization also debuted a new web site,, and launched a new program called Comprehensive Nutrition Care (CNC). The program combines the home-delivered meals and nutrition education to help people prevent or control chronic diseases.

But now that it serves 4,500 meals a day out of its Ottley Drive headquarters Open Hand needed to expand its operations. After moving some of its administrative offices to an off-site building and raising $500,000 through mostly private donations, the group was able to expand its kitchen by 2,000 square feet and added some much-needed equipment.

Space in the kitchen, which is used for all meal preparation, storage and bagging, was increased to 12,000 square feet. New equipment includes a walk-in freezer, double rotating oven, blast chiller, walk-in cooler, electronic forklift, tilt skillet, work tables and shelving.

The operation includes a symbiotic mixture of automation and hand-packed meals. While the volunteers cook the food and place it into package compartments, a conveyor-like machine heat seals a layer of plastic over the oven and microwave-safe containers.

Executive Director Stephen Woods said the expansion is designed to accommodate Open Hand’s client growth for the next three to five years. Client need is expected to increase by 15 percent each year. Currently, about 20 percent of Open Hand clients have HIV/AIDS, while 60 percent are senior citizens and the remaining 20 percent have other critical or chronic needs. In addition, 90 percent of Open Hand clients live at or below the poverty level.

Open Hand has never had to maintain waiting list, but Woods said he expects client needs to increase over the next few years based on the increasing senior population as well as the increase in services provided by Open Hand.

“I believe, just based on our new mission and based on our needs, we predict significant growth,” he said.

Thanks to the new kitchen, though, growth is not as big a concern as it once was.

Open Hand’s Resource Development Director Chris Nave said prior to the expansion, there was one simple problem.

“The biggest thing was space,” he said. “There are all these different staging points throughout the day and everybody’s on top of each other and if one staging area gets behind, then it just messes up the whole day. What this allowed us to do is create three different packing lines.”

With more efficient equipment and an increased amount of work space, Nave said the facility is now better able to handle its daily stages of production.

“We produce 4,500 meals a day,” Nave said. “The whole kitchen has to transform three times a day in terms of cooking food, packaging food and then putting the meals into the distribution bags.”

Open Hand clients have several menu options to address a multitude of dietary needs. In addition to a “regular” meal, clients can choose from therapeutic menu options that include, mechanical soft, diabetic, 2-gram sodium, renal, dialysis, low-fat, low-lactose, liquid, no pork, no fish and vegetarian meals.

On a given week this time of year, meals can range from meatloaf and barbecue chicken to roast turkey, chicken Parmesan and lemon pepper fish.

During the two months leading up to the new kitchen’s completion in September, Nave said work remained pretty seamless in the face of construction and meal service did not have to be interrupted.

Meal preparation has also remained unchanged, except for the addition of a new production line. Every day, meals for breakfast lunch and dinner are packaged and shipped out from the facility. Cooking and packaging goes on all day from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. and deliveries are made between 8 a.m. and about 1 p.m.

Nave said that at the end of Open Hand’s next three to five years of growth, the organization may have to look into the possibility of launching a capital campaign to accommodate client need. Growth capabilities are limited.

“We’re restricted at this facility in terms of parking,” Nave said. “We’ve limped along thanks to the generation of Mason Murer Art Gallery behind us. They loan us about 50 spaces every day for our staff members. We wouldn’t be able to be here if it weren’t for them.”

Because of zoning regulations related to square footage and minimum requirements for spaces, Nave said Open Hand does not have the ability to expand vertically.