Every April for the past 27 years, about 70 Atlanta-area restaurants have helped raise critical funds for Open Hand Atlanta, a Buckhead-based nonprofit that prepares and delivers nutritious meals for low-income people who have chronic illnesses or difficulty leaving home due to age or disabilities.

The annual Dining Out for Life fundraiser normally brings in up to $200,000 for the cause in just one day from restaurant partners, who typically donate at least 25% of event sales. This year — in response to the COVID-19 crisis that has prevented eateries from serving sit-down diners — Open Hand is turning the tables on the event and making it virtual as “Dining In for Life.”

“We’ve been doing this for many, many years and this will be the first time we’ve ever had to do any sort of virtual type of event,” said John Penninger, Open Hand’s senior director of resource development. “We decided that instead of canceling the event this year, we’d turn it into something that would give back to our restaurant partners that have been so supportive for so long.”

Instead of occurring on only one day, the Dining In for Life event will take place from April 27 to May 3, encouraging residents to help local restaurateurs stay afloat by ordering meals that can either be picked up curbside or delivered to homes.

And this time, Open Hand is not asking restaurants to share their profits with it. Instead, the nonprofit is hoping patrons will choose to donate on their own on the restaurant’s behalf.

Open Hand started in 1988 as a local response to another global pandemic: HIV/AIDS.

“What we do is not necessarily sexy, like the Humane Society or other nonprofits that are the default charities people typically give to,” Penninger said in an interview. “We deal with seniors and the sick and the marginalized population nobody wants to talk about. We don’t have puppies or kittens or kids, but we’re taking care of someone’s grandmother or father or people who don’t even have family around anymore. Many times, we’re the only visitor they have when the meals are delivered.”

Penninger said that Open Hand usually delivers about 5,000 meals per day. Now it is seeing an increased need that could reach up to 6,000 daily meals in 19 counties.

He said the crisis brought on by the coronavirus is making it even more difficult to keep up with rising demand because Open Hand is unable to use its vast network of volunteers for meal deliveries as much as in the past.

“It’s been all hands on deck with our administrative staff and others who don’t typically get involved in deliveries,” he said, adding the crisis also has forced changes in how the medically tailored meals are prepared. “We have hundreds of menus and typically provide more choices, but since the crisis we’ve had to streamline operations and even start freezing some meals to ensure we’ll have ample supply if things get shut down completely.”

Although Open Hand receives grants and has one other large annual fundraiser known as “Party in the Kitchen,” it expects to feel the pinch from the loss of revenues normally generated through the Dining Out for Life event. The fundraiser has brought it more than $3 million for Open Hand since 1993.

“We won’t have any grand expectations of raising a lot of money this year,” said Penninger. “We just felt it was a great opportunity to show some love to our partner restaurants. They’ve been so good to us.”

One of those longtime partners in Sandy Springs, Southern Bistro’s co-owner Nancy Goodrich, said she still plans on sharing funds with Open Hand after this year’s event.

“Our restaurant has been involved with the effort for at least 11 years,” Goodrich said, adding her restaurant usually donates about $1,000 to Open Hand each year. “The Dining In for Life event is a great idea and a great way to give back to us as we’ve given back to them. It’s a win-win for everyone and I’m sure we’ll donate something.

“We’ve been really lucky and haven’t had to lay off anyone because we’re able to stay busy with take-out orders and our new general store,” said Goodrich. “If this crisis had hit three years ago, it could have taken us down.”

For more information about Dining In for Life, including a list of partner restaurants in Buckhead, Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, see diningoutforoh.org. For more about Open Hand, see openhandatlanta.org.

–K.T. McKee