‘Let Food Be Thy Medicine’

Community ServingsCEO David Waters in the packing and bagging area of Community Servings. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Community Servings Crafts Medically Tailored Meals for Some of Cambridge’s Most Vulnerable Populations

A woman with diabetes had to call an ambulance every month to stabilize her glucose levels. The financial burden and disruption to her life were enormous. But after getting connected to Community Servings, a Boston-based nonprofit that serves medically tailored meals to people with critical illnesses, she went six months without having to call 911.

Community Servings got its start in the early 1990s to help people living with AIDS get the nutrition they needed. That’s when Cambridge resident David Waters, now CEO of Community Servings, started volunteering with the organization while working in the food industry.

“As a food person, I knew how important the care of delivering beautiful food was,” he says. “But also, as a young, gay guy, I was looking for a way to cope with the fear and isolation of the height of the AIDS epidemic.”

Community Servings has since expanded to help people with dozens of illnesses, including cancer, diabetes, and kidney disease.

Widely known for its Pie in the Sky fundraiser each Thanksgiving, Community Servings works with 20 communities in the Greater Boston area, including Cambridge and Somerville. Cambridge is one of the areas the organization works in most, according to Waters, who says they serve 100 clients and about 28,000 meals annually in the city.

Each meal can address up to three health needs, Waters says.

Community Servings

Photo courtesy of Community Servings.

“If you have advanced diabetes, over time it might give you blindness, so you wouldn’t be able to shop and cook for yourself,” he explains. “But it also might attack your kidneys and give you kidney disease. So for diabetes, you would need a meal that was controlling glucose, but as your illness evolved, you would then need to control for potassium for kidney failure, and then somewhere in there you might have a stroke, and you would need to control for what’s called vitamin K, based on being on a blood thinner.”

There’s data, in addition to accounts from clients, to back up the organization’s efficacy. A recent study found that eating Community Servings’ meals was correlated with a 16 percent decrease in health care costs.

People typically get referred to Community Servings by their doctors, Waters says. Community Servings’ dieticians then work with a client’s care team to make sure the meals are meeting their needs.

Community Servings provides enough food for a client’s family—“Knowing that a sick parent is going to give the first meal to their child,” Waters explains—and brings enough food each week for five days’ worth of lunches, dinners, and snacks.

Income isn’t a factor in eligibility for Community Servings, but the organization says that 92 percent of its clients are living in poverty. This statistic shows how many elements can contribute to chronic illnesses, Waters says.

Food access and eating habits early in a person’s life can have a large impact on whether they develop chronic illnesses, he explains.

Research shows that people of color are significantly more likely to live in food deserts. Sixty-four percent of Community Servings’ clients are people of color.

“If you have lived your life struggling financially, or without some of the benefits that the rest of us have, your food choices are much more limited—what you can get in your home, do you live in a food desert—and so you’re often pushed more toward processed foods and less toward healthy fruits and vegetables,” Waters says. “Those are often the things that are going to drive diet-related illnesses, the epidemic of obesity and diabetes, leads to kidney failure, and then on top of that, all the normal aging things.”

Community Servings also offers nutrition education to people who are healthy enough to no longer need meals delivered.

Rachael Solem, owner of the Irving House and the Harding House in Cambridge, has volunteered with Community Servings, donated to it, and participated in its Pie in the Sky fundraiser for years. She praised the organization’s nutrition education and its food service training, which helps people “facing barriers to employment” get the training they need to work in the food service industry.

“Seeing what they’re doing—expanding their services beyond AIDS patients to anyone with life-threatening illnesses, expanding their service area, and really studying what diets help people get better—everything that they’ve chosen to address they’ve done with great intelligence and care,” Solem says. “They’re my favorite charity because of this.”

This story originally appeared in the Food, Glorious Food! issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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