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Community Servings: "It’s Very Powerful, the Love That Goes Into the Food"

Community Servings prepares 750 meals a day and delivers them in Boston and in 15 other communities across 200 square miles

began in response to the AIDS crisis.  It continues to assist area residents who are too ill to shop and cook.  Its activities have broadened to include nutrition education, making fresh foods available in the city, even workforce development—all in service to its core mission.

I toured CS’s specially designed, green facility on Marbury Terrace with Executive Director David Waters, who has been involved with the organization in various capacities since its founding, and has headed it for the last 11 years.

Why and how was Community Servings founded?

In 1990 AIDS was a deadly disease.   Once people who were infected with HIV developed AIDS, they would die within weeks.  The immediate cause of death was often not the disease itself, but malnutrition.  The virus makes you feel like you have the flu and you stop eating. 

High calorie meals could keep a person alive for a few additional weeks—that’s a long time for someone’s loved ones. 

The idea for Community Servings came from the American tradition of making a casserole for a sick neighbor—only it’s the 20th Century urban version and you’re making it for someone you don’t know.

CS was founded by the American Jewish Congress, which brought together a coalition of doctors, nurses, social workers, restaurateurs, chefs and organizations such as AIDS Action.  It was really the whole community coming together—that spirit is still with us 20 years later.

Tell me about CS’s current programs.

Today we have expanded to serve anyone in the critical stage of an illness and unable to shop and cook.   Clients are coping with 35 different illnesses including HIV/AIDS, cancer, lung disease, multiple sclerosis, lupus, renal disease and diabetes.  We feed the client, dependents and one adult care giver.  We prepare 750 meals a day and deliver them in Boston and in 15 other communities across 200 square miles.  A week’s worth of meals (lunch, dinner and a snack for each day) are delivered chilled or frozen to each client weekly.

Clients are referred to us by doctors, nurses and social workers who give us vital information about the person’s medical and mobility issues.  Our nutrition staff also assesses clients and is available for individual nutrition counseling.  Nutrition classes for clients and family members and community members are offered at our JP facility.

People who are ill often have specific dietary requirements.  We prepare 25 different medically appropriate menus each day.  Imagine giving a dinner party for 25 and making a different meal for each of them!

The flip side is the emotional aspect of food.  As a former restaurateur [Waters was previously the general manager of Upstairs at the Pudding], I know how important it is that food taste good—especially when you’re losing your appetite because you’re not feeling well.  If it’s institutional food, they’re not going to eat it. 

We work hard to be sure that the food is beautiful, colorful and smells good.  We are also determined that it be culturally appropriate for our diverse clients—65 – 70 percent are families of color.  Our staff also reflect that diversity and we ask them to bring in recipes, which we adapt.  We want our food to make people feel safe and evoke positive memories.  It’s very powerful, the love that goes into the food.

Our JP kitchen facility, which opened in 2007, allows us to offer some additional programs that support the core work.

Food Service Job Training:  We’ve always hired people who faced barriers to work.  Now we’re able to offer them a formal training program including a 12 weeks of classes, hands-on experience in our professional kitchen, field trips to restaurant kitchens, case management and job search assistance utilizing CS’s connections with the restaurant industry.  Participants get skills and access to opportunities; CS gets free labor that helps us carry out our mission.  We can’t feed our sick clients without them and that helps build their self-esteem.

Local Foods Initiatives:  We hold a farmers’ market weekly, increasing access to fresh produce for local residents.  We accept SNAP/EBT cards, WIC and Senior Coupons.  Additional coupons are offered at our nutrition classes.  We also host a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and CSF (fish) program.  Our relationships with local farms enable us to receive surplus produce for use in our meals—last summer our delivery vans picked up 30,000 lbs. of free organic produce that otherwise would have gone to waste.

Social Enterprise:  Meals for Many lets us utilize our kitchen to provide fresh, healthy meals for schools, elder meals programs and nonprofit agencies while generating revenue that helps support our core program.  Currently we supply meals to in JP, Match High School in Brighton, Mission Grammar in Mission Hill and Ethos, a day program for seniors headquartered in JP.

Why is JP a good home for CS?

JP is such a unique, vibrant community—we’re excited to have a neighborhood home where we can put down roots.  In an urban environment a lot of folks are looking for their people.  They identify with their charitable commitments.  They give and attend events and maybe volunteer.

Within the city you can have food deserts.  Low-income people often don’t have access to fresh produce.  We’re reaching out to people on food stamps with coupons for our farmers’ markets and nutrition classes.

We’ve cared for people at the crisis point, now we’re looking further at prevention.  How can you alter your diet so you can improve your health?  We see ourselves having a significant role to play in educating people about this.

Our home-delivered meals help people get healthier too.  Our meal at $5 is a smart investment for the community vs. the cost of a hospital or rehab.  It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing.

The Amory Street Corridor is becoming one of the most important areas in the neighborhood for nonprofits and we’re a part of it. 

Waters and I both donned Community Servings baseball caps and he led me on a tour of their custom facility.  The gutting and refitting of this previously abandoned grocery warehouse was an early green building project and was completed in 2007.  CS researched kitchens extensively before settling on their innovative and efficient horseshoe design.  Because clients are immune-compromised, the kitchen is kept super-clean and special flash chillers with doors on either side of a wall between the hot kitchen and the packaging area cool food quickly to prevent bacterial contamination while moving it through the production path.  Meals are packaged in compostable paper trays and even truck routes and maintenance are planned for maximum efficiency and minimum impact. CS is also a union shop.

What is the best thing CS has done for JP?

We’ve brought a second farmers’ market to JP [which is held in the parking lot of CS’s facility on Marbury Terrace off Amory Street].  There’s so much interest in local food now.  Residents’ ongoing, consistent support of both markets is important so we can continue to make produce available.

We put a lot of volunteers to work—about 50 each day-- and we manage them well.  We’re very clear about communicating what they have accomplished. 

We would love to have everyone in JP engaged in what we’re doing.

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