Project Angel Heart Continues Mission Despite Challenges

Project Angel Heart is sending out more food than ever, with fewer people.
Project Angel Heart is sending out more food than ever, with fewer people. Linnea Covington
Project Angel Heart's mission has been shaken by the one-two punch of losing executive chef Brandon Foster, who passed away on July 5 while hiking with his family in Summit County, and dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, which has added another layer of complications to creating and distributing medically tailored meals to people living with life-threatening illnesses, including some whose immune systems may already be compromised.

Foster was the executive chef at Vesta when he decided to move over to the nonprofit four years ago. "Brandon...could’ve worked anywhere, led any kitchen; but he chose to use his talents for the greater good," says Jon Emanuel, the previous executive chef at Project Angel Heart.

Back in April, we spoke with Foster about the challenges of producing meals without endangering employees or clients. At the time, volunteers were not being allowed in the kitchen, so staffers with the nonprofit were working harder than ever. "I have to give a shout-out to my whole kitchen staff for basically turning the whole process upside down," Foster said.

Among those on his kitchen staff was Summer Polson, the sous-chef who's been with Project Angel Heart for a dozen years; she's stepped into the exec-chef role on an "interim" basis, according to president and CEO Owen Ryan, who says that team members are holding steady while dealing with their grief.

We asked Ryan a couple of other questions about how the nonprofit is handling things during these tough times.

Westword: How has Project Angel Heart's mission been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic?

Owen Ryan: The coronavirus has changed everything in terms of how we work. We saw a large increase in demand for our meals, as most of our clients are living with illnesses that put them at the highest risk for complications from COVID. At the same time, we were forced to dramatically cut the number of volunteers who support our work. Before COVID, we had approximately 500 volunteers per week involved in prepping, dishing and delivering meals. We’ve been working with less than half that since March, which has meant that all of our staff are filling many of the volunteer roles on a temporary basis. We are just starting to reintroduce some of those volunteers shifts, and hope to have many back before the end of the year.

Have you been serving COVID patients or people with other illnesses forced to stay home because of immune-system issues?

The vast majority of our clients are living with multiple chronic illnesses that make it hard to get around and hard to eat. That includes congestive heart failure, breast or ovarian cancer, HIV, end-stage renal disease and many others. When the coronavirus struck Colorado, these individuals knew they couldn’t leave their homes. In addition to our normal meal service, which is about 15,000 meals per week, we provided each of our clients an additional two weeks of shelf-stable meals to support them staying home. We were supported by Food Bank of the Rockies and Care & Share to help make this happen. In April, through a partnership with Denver Health, we expanded to serve people recovering at home from COVID. That program remains in place.

Project Angel Heart has more information on its website about precautions being taken during the pandemic and meals being prepared and delivered to COVID-19 patients.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation