In 1989, David Waters was a man in his early 30s terrified of HIV. That same year, Community Servings was founded to provide home-delivered meals to people living with HIV/AIDS. For Waters, then a restaurateur in Cambridge, he saw in the then-fledgling organization a way for a food person like himself to make sense of this very scary epidemic and started volunteering to help raise money for the nonprofit, which was then based in Roxbury. Specifically, he recruited friends in the restaurant business to bake pies to sell for the cause. The first year, they sold 1,000 pies. More than 20 years later, Waters’s idea is still going strong (the Pie in the Sky program sells 15,000 pies a year in the three weeks leading up to Thanksgiving), as is his commitment to Community Servings; after six years as a volunteer and board member and a three-year stint as development director, he’s served as Community Servings’ CEO for the past 13 years.
Now at its JP location near the Stony Brook MBTA stop since 2007, Community Servings provides nutritionally tailored meals to people in 18 communities who are unable to shop or cook for themselves due to a critical illness. While that’s at the heart of Community Servings’ services, there’s also nutrition education, a food service job-training program, a subsidized CSA, a holiday basket program, and a social enterprise of selling food to schools and nonprofits to generate revenue for its meal delivery program. Waters took some time to talk about the organization’s mission, how it’s grown, and what’s on the horizon.
What is at the core of your mission?
To feed people who are critically ill. We come to you at a time when you are homebound with illness, unable to shop and cook for yourself and feed your family. We come once a week with a week’s worth of meals for you, one other adult, and any children. It’s really unique. We look at the science of nutrition and create 25 different medically tailored diets each day—from accommodating diabetic and renal diets, to vegetarian and kid-friendly meals. It could be four different meals per family. It’s about tailoring the right diet to the right person. And we help people get back on their feet as soon as possible, with nutrition and counseling and education to encourage them to go back to cooking for themselves, and we help them find other resources such as a food pantry or food bank. We work with people anywhere from two weeks to 10 years, but typically six months.
The second piece is addressing the emotional or psychological side of food. Many of our clients have lost their appetites due to nausea or depression. We need to make sure the smells, colors, and tastes are there. This summer we had 14 tons of local produce donated by local farms, as well as herbs grown on our property. . . We were able to turn that into beautiful food.
We also want to bring culturally appropriate food to people we serve. That’s what motivates you to eat and it also evokes food memories from a time when they felt safe and loved and secure. We want to use food to not only provide nutrients but love and safety and solace.
There are so many layers. There’s also food insecurity when a client doesn’t know where the next meal is coming from. It’s not only limited to income and resources but also the inability to get out and lack of mobility they once had.
What about the name?
We think of it as the community serving the community. The whole community comes together—through staff, volunteers, and donors. We don’t want people in the Boston area to be so alone and scared.
How do people qualify?
It’s all referral based: through a doctor, nurse, social worker, case manager, neighbor or the individual.
Tell me about your team.
We have 40 staff members. We have 50 volunteers a day who come and help us. That’s the equivalent of 30 full-time employees in terms of number of hours per year. They prepare, package, and deliver. We produce 2,700 meals day, here. That’s about 1,700 for sick clients. We also feed five local schools on a for-profit basis.
A registered dietician and nutrition educator works for us, in addition to a working kitchen staff. We also provide nutrition education classes. Last year we held 85 different classes. It’s a big operation that engages a lot of people.
What has the most meaning for you?
It’s intellectually stimulating, challenging, and fun but the thing that’s most rewarding is that so many people in the community buy into it and feel a sense of ownership over it. There’s a real sense of community. In a previous era, people identified with a parish or a synagogue. Now often times, charities or nonprofits become that connection.
What’s on the horizon?
We’re are looking to try and start a cooking school with the belief that a lot people grew up on fast and processed foods. Giving free produce is not enough if you don’t know what to do with it. One of our dreams is to start incorporating classes in basic cooking.
What about your JP location?
We’ve been here five years and we’ve been blown away by how welcoming the community was to us, how perfect a home it has been for us, how so many people are into the community, nonprofits, and food issues. It’s been a dream come true.