Most people have heard the term “comfort food” before. It’s usually used to describe edibles that evoke childhood happiness and security. In other words, the stuff mom used to make: meat loaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, scratch biscuits, apple crumble and the like.

Here in the South we take comfort food to another level, because the notion that food is a balm is practically encoded into our DNA. It’s something we see modeled from our earliest understanding. If someone is sick, hurting or down on their luck, you’re supposed to feed them.

Consider the number of times growing up you accompanied your grandma to take soup to a friend with the flu or tagged along with your mom to deliver a casserole to an elderly shut-in. Without even realizing it, you probably knew that the appropriate response to the news that a neighborhood family had lost a loved one was carrying over a 21-piece bucket of chicken — original recipe, of course.

Given this heritage it’s no surprise that food has become a critical component in the fight against HIV in the South. Fundraisers for AIDS service organizations in the form of privately hosted dinners have proliferated throughout the region, raising millions of dollars for care, case management and support. These life-saving meals are perhaps the ultimate expression of comfort food.

The 19th Annual Dining For Friends to benefit Triad Health Project (THP) will be held May 17. According to Shane Burton, THP’s director of community involvement, over 100 dinner parties will be held throughout the Triad.

Dining For Friends is organized like most ASO dinner fundraisers. Hosts plan their own events, buy the ingredients and supplies, assemble their own guest lists and set the minimum donation. The agency provides pre-printed invitations for mailing. Guests come to dinner prepared to give the requested amount or more and all money goes to the agency.

After dinner, guests from all the events are invited to come together for a free dessert reception. For this year’s Dining For Friends, the Grand Dessert Gala is being held at the Greensboro Coliseum Special Events Center beginning at 9 p.m. Desserts will be provided by area restaurants. The general public can give donations at the door for admission.

Burton told Q-Notes, “Dining For Friends is absolutely, vitally important to [Triad Health Project]. It is our largest fundraiser each year. We’ve been doing it for 19 years now and it has raised over $2 million since its inception. Our agency would not be able to operate day-to-day without the funds generated from this event.”

Last month, the Columbia-based AIDS Benefit Foundation of South Carolina (ABF) sponsored its yearly Dining With Friends fundraiser. ABF is a 20-year-old non-profit organization that exists solely to raise money for AIDS charities and agencies, including Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services.

Garden of Grace United Church of Christ hosted a barbecue as part of the event. Members donated all the food. Rather than send invitations, the church opened its $25-per-plate fundraiser to the community, with a specific outreach to the senior citizens home next door.

Pastor Andy Sidden said, “Our neighbors in the assisted living center came over in a caravan in their motorized chairs. Anyone who couldn’t pay, the church covered. We didn’t turn anyone away.”

Sidden estimated that around 30 dinner guests participated. He couldn’t specify how much money was raised because some donations were received in sealed envelopes and passed on to ABF unopened.

“It felt really good to meet our neighbors,” Sidden told Q-Notes. “It’s a very nice way to break bread, knowing that you’re helping others.”

On June 27, the AIDS Leadership Foothills-area Alliance (ALFA) in Hickory will hold its version of Dining For Friends. Linda Sheehan, ALFA’s community outreach manager, said the decade-old fundraiser usually comprises 20 to 25 gatherings, with last year’s event raising approximately $104,000 for general operating costs.

Asked to comment on the importance of Dining For Friends, Sheehan told Q-Notes, “It means literally everything to ALFA. It’s our biggest fundraiser of the year. I don’t think we could make up the difference any other way.”

She added that there is a critical need for dinner hosts this year. “Some of our regular hosts aren’t able to participate, so we are definitely looking for more.”

Interested parties should call Sheehan at 828-322-1447 ext. 231 for more information.

Readers in other cities can check with their local ASOs to see if those agencies are sponsoring dinner fundraisers. Q-Notes encourages everyone to get involved in the fight against AIDS.

David Stout is the former associate editor of QNotes.