Community Servings: Creating Healthy Communities, One Meal at a Time

healthycommunity

Community Servings: Creating Healthy Communities,
One Meal at a Time

by Rebecca Hansen

The volunteer kitchen at Community Servings is full of energizing hustle and bustle. On either side of a large stainless steel table, volunteers portion out servings for meals like turkey medallions, sweet potatoes and green beans. A machine at the end of the table seals each meal under plastic, its steady rhythm accompanying the action in the kitchen.

Thanks to the contagious enthusiasm and efficiency of dedicated staff members like Executive Chef Brad Stevens, there is a strong sense of fun and camaraderie among the volunteers, some of whom may have just met for the first time. In a few hours a team of volunteers can pack and seal around 1,000 meals that are ready to be frozen. And although the result may look much like a frozen dinner you might buy at the supermarket, the food inside is very different. Unlike the high-sodium, high-fat items that often come with conventional freezer meals, every component here is made from scratch and nutritionally balanced.

These meals are destined for critically ill men and women in the greater Boston area, and it is Community Servings' mission to provide them with appealing, healthy food when they most need it.

Community Servings began in 1990 as a small hot meals service for men and women living with HIV/AIDS, making deliveries from Dorchester with just one van and driver. At that time, the only real medicine to combat AIDS was a high-calorie meal.Today, Community Servings still believes the meals they provide to be as important as any medicine, and they have expanded their reach across 16 cities and towns, serving clients with illnesses ranging from breast cancer to Parkinson's disease.

What their clients have in common is that they have reached a crisis point in their illness and can no longer shop or cook for themselves or their families. Many of them are also struggling economically, adding to the challenge of maintaining a well-balanced diet. This is where Community Servings steps in, providing meals not just for these men and women but for their families and caretakers as well.

In 2007, the organization moved to a new facility in Jamaica Plain, where the expanded kitchen capacity allows them to make weekly deliveries to 1,400 people each year. Clients receive two meals per day, along with soups, salads and healthy snacks like fruit and yogurt. The menu is tailored to the needs of each individual through 25 variations of the regular menu, including options such as nut-free, low-fiber and vegetarian. Meals are healthy and well-balanced-but not low-calorie, as Chef Stevens is quick to note. On the contrary, they are hearty and high-protein, so that clients battling illness get as much energy as possible.

Indeed, nutritional considerations are an essential factor for every meal, but Community Servings aims to provide much more than that. They see themselves as filling the role of a concerned neighbor who brings food prepared with a neighbor's care. The goal is to provide meals that evoke memories and feelings of comfort, which can be as important as any medicine.

This is one reason why desserts have remained a fixture on the menu, even after the city of Boston banned trans fats and Community Servings had to begin baking their own, in house. "Dessert is what we all look forward to as kids, or when we're sick," says Tim Leahy, vice president of development and communications. "It tells you that people are caring for you."

It can also provide a critical entry point into a meal for those who may have a waning appetite due to illness or intense drug therapies. Tim tells the story of a woman who was particularly sick from her treatments and was struggling to eat at all. By beginning a meal with a peach cobbler that reminded her of the one her mother used to make, she was able to work her way through the rest of the meal.

This belief in both the nutritional and psychosocial importance of a well-prepared meal permeates every aspect of the organization, including the volunteer experience. Each month, 850 volunteers help assemble meals for delivery, and their contribution is essential to the success of the program. Indeed, CEO David Waters views the commitment of local volunteers as one of the organization's greatest assets.

"The community sees that we are doing innovative work with a smart business model and they want to get involved," he says. Because so many people donate their time, Community Servings is able to provide each client with lunch, dinner and a snack for just $5 a day. But before volunteers can begin work, they receive a brief training not just in food safety, but also in the importance of presentation. Neatness counts. This mantra begins in the training room and continues in the kitchen, where great care is taken with each meal assembled, ensuring that the finished product looks as appetizing as it is nutritious.

Waters has been involved with Community Servings since its beginnings, volunteering his time to get the program up and running while he was general manager at UpStairs at the Pudding. When he joined the organization full-time in 1996, he saw it as an opportunity to build a smart, creative business model that could care for the underserved as part of the food community. Now, with the move to the larger facility, Community Servings has built a remarkable network of food and nutrition programs, all of which benefit their core meals program while allowing them to reach out to more people than ever before.

Waters attributes this continued expansion, even through the recent economic downturn, to the entrepreneurial approach that the board and management team have taken toward their work: They design new programs to earn money to feed critically ill people, but they also strive to identify needs in the community and find ways to fill them.

Thus began their social enterprise initiative, through which the kids' meals they were already serving to clients' families are now sold to area schools such as Mission Grammar, which previously purchased its student lunches from a local pizza shop. Now, hundreds of children get well-balanced, nutritious meals each day, and Community Servings earns additional revenue for its core program.

"The exciting part of our work after 20 years is that our meals program is very well run and efficient, and we have the capacity to do additional work," says Waters. "It's the proverbial win-win."

Indeed, it seems that each new program is designed so that everyone involved stands to benefit in some way, including two job-training programs.  "We began to wonder if we could help more people from challenged backgrounds while getting more folks into our kitchen to make meals," says Waters.

And so the 12-week food services training program was born. In this program, individuals who face significant barriers to employment have the opportunity to gain skills through both classroom education and hands-on learning in the kitchen. When they graduate, the organization leverages their connections with the Boston restaurant community to help the graduates find employment.

Participants, says Waters, are very dedicated to the program, both because they've been offered a second chance and because of what it means to work there. "Being a part of the Community Servings team, helping to feed sick neighbors in their own communities, is incredibly empowering," he says. People gain a tremendous amount of self-confidence along with the practical skills.

The same holds true for participants in the Step Forward program, in which recent parolees are referred to do community service if they aren't currently employed. Participants' parole fees get waived, and they also earn vouchers good for courses at Bunker Hill Community College.

Community Servings also offers nutritional programming for clients whose health has improved enough to transition off of meal delivery.  The six-week healthy eating course is based in the curriculum of Share Our Strength's Operation Frontline. The class, taught by a registered dietitian, focuses on shopping for and preparing nutritious food on a budget-the target goal for each meal is $10 for a family of four. The aim is to ensure that clients will continue to have access to whole, nutritious meals at home, long after the deliveries stop. The same program is also offered periodically to members of the JP/Roxbury community.

Remarkably, through all of this growth and transition, Community Servings is making notable strides toward sustainability. At the operational level, they've taken many steps to go green, including a front desk made of sunflower seed husks, as well as the use of biodegradable pressed-paper food containers in the meals program.

At the programming level, they began a Sunday farmers market last year with the aim of bringing fresh, healthy food to underserved individuals in the JP/Roxbury community. They achieved noteworthy success in reaching that goal, with the second-highest receipt of SNAP purchases out of all the farmers markets in the city. Leahy attributes this largely to Community Servings' outreach efforts.

"We do our best to educate our clients and volunteers about what's available to them," he says. The farmers market also plays host to a CSF, or community-supported fishery, provided by a local Gloucester fisherman each week. Any surplus is used for the food services training programs, where the fisherman has also taught students how to break down a whole fish into usable portions. The local branch of CleanFish-an alliance of sustainable fisheries-also donates any surplus to the program, all of which was previously being thrown away.

In partnership with Heaven's Harvest, a certified organic farm in New Braintree, Community Servings also runs a CSA for 100 people, including reduced-price shares for low-income participants. As with all of the newer initiatives, the CSA feeds back into the core program, with 10 percent of the proceeds going toward the weekly meals along with any surplus produce. In the future, Community Servings aims to increase their commitment to sustainable agriculture even further through composting, an institutional CSA, and a gleaning project, through which they could salvage the produce that typically gets left behind and turned back into the soil after machine harvest.

Waters sees this commitment to making fresh, local food available to underserved communities as a natural extension of the core program.  "Poor people can't access healthy food; obesity is rampant due to cheap, processed foods; and poor diets lead to critical illnesses."

Indeed, Waters views obesity as a very serious problem, one whose impact is in some ways even bigger than that of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and '90s. The majority of Community Servings clients are struggling with obesity in addition to their other diseases. "Once again, poor people are the hardest hit, without the resources to prevent obesity or maintain a healthy diet."

With these issues in mind, Community Servings has begun a dialogue between staff, board members and community partners to determine how they can play a role in this growing public health and social justice issue. Ultimately, Waters wants to work toward preventing obesity and illness through food and nutrition, helping people stay healthy and avoid becoming a Community Servings client in the first place.

"In the broadest sense," says Waters, "we believe that food is medicine, with powerful scientific and nutritious impact as well as psychosocial benefits." And with the help of the community at large, their impact can continue to grow. Those interested in learning more are welcome to call and schedule a tour to see the team in action. "It's exciting work and we welcome new partners and friends!"

For more information on how you can volunteer at Community Servings, both inside the kitchen and out, contact Rebecca Ober at 617-522-7777 ext. 228 or rober@servings.org.

Rebecca Hansen is a freelance writer and editor living in Jamaica Plain.  She is happy to have such a wonderful neighbor in Community Servings and visits them regularly to help out in the kitchen. You can read more of her writing on all things local, organic, sustainable and yummy at www.ecofoodie.blogspot.com.