Gloria had recently lost her job when she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in 2011. As an unemployed social worker aggressively treating her cancer through chemotherapy, radiation and multiple surgeries, Gloria turned to Community Servings at an extremely critical time in her life.
Community Servings is a food and nutrition program in Boston, MA that delivers 500,000 free, made-from-scratch meals to 1,600 people every year. The flash-frozen and microwaveable meals are delivered every week to people with critical or chronic illnesses who are too sick to shop for food or cook for themselves or their families. Meals are medically tailored to a person’s specific dietary needs, personal tastes and medications. Over sixty percent of clients receive one of the 17 different diets, such as low sodium, diabetic, soft, no dairy, or low vitamin K. The organization can also accommodate a combination of these requests, for example, if a client is lactose intolerant, diabetic, and managing their potassium because of kidney disease.
This is no small logistical feat for the kitchen of Community Servings and its staff and crew of 50-75 daily volunteers who prepare and cook 2,000 meals a day. Community Servings also partners with local farms to ensure each meal is made with local and fresh ingredients. Each week during growing season, the chefs are greeted with 5,000 pounds of seasonal produce and creatively assemble menus based on whatever is delivered, in true CSA-style.
Tailored For Treatment
Registered dietitians also help craft the menus and make sure clients’ dietary needs are accounted for. Lindsay Bronstein, Manager of Nutrition Services at Community Servings, explained the various factors she keeps in mind when working with clients living with breast cancer: “Homemade soup is a big hit amongst clients who are having trouble keeping food down or are feeling nauseous. We can also deliver nutritional drinks to clients going through treatment to keep their weight up, calcium-rich foods to help maintain bone density, or a low spice diet if they have mouth sores.” Lindsay also explained that the organization is able to stay nimble depending on a client’s changing needs or preferences: “The nice thing is we can change a diet every week for a client if we need to. It’s as simple as them calling up someone in the nutrition department.”
“Food is a source of stability, safety and solace that tells someone they haven’t been forgotten and that the community is there for them.”
Community Through Food
The Community Servings staff is not only accessible, but can help to foster a sense of community and emotional support. For Gloria, this was especially true. “I looked forward to the delivery drivers coming and taking the time to talk to me,” she said. “Even when I was weak from my treatments, they would always brighten my day by offering words of encouragement.” Delivery service to housebound clients can provide an important connection to the outside world, who might not see other people on a regular basis.
“We’re there for that scary period when people feel very much alone,” said David Waters, CEO of Community Servings. “To have the food, the driver, and the nutrition team there for them is really important.”
Supporting and Strengthening Families
Clients are often struggling with challenges beyond their chronic illness. Ninety-two percent of Community Servings’ clients live in poverty. “Our clients often have a lot of chaos in their lives,” said David. “Sometimes they’re living in poverty, they’re raising children, they might have multiple diagnoses at the same time. The food is a source of stability, safety and solace that tells someone they haven’t been forgotten and that the community is there for them.”
Community Servings provides lunch, dinner and snacks for clients as well as their caregivers and dependent children if needed. “One of the most powerful things I’ve learned is it’s not enough to feed a sick parent,” said David. “You have to feed their children as well, otherwise they’ll give their meal to their children first. Bringing food to a family in addition to the patient can not only help feed them, but keep that family together.”
Outreach and Education
In addition to the meal delivery program, Community Servings also offers nutrition education classes to teach people how to make “culturally appropriate, tasty and nutritious meals.” The staff teaches a “Farm to Fork” class predominantly to low-income communities and communities of color, where they explain how to prepare different vegetables and healthy meals, and all attendees leave with a bag of farm fresh veggies. Sometimes, clients who no longer need meal deliveries will attend classes seeking support on how to sustain a healthy diet and prepare the food for themselves.
“I had a client who called me once to say how much she loved the ‘purple salad’ she was getting delivered and asking for more of it,” recalled Lindsay from Nutrition Services. “She was talking about beets! I told her more about them and how good they are for you, and I also sent her some recipes.”
“The money spent on a patient’s care for one day in the hospital is the equivalent of feeding them for six months.”
In addition to the daily goal of keeping people fed, David also views the work of Community Servings as providing preventative care, and as a vital part of the broader health care system: “Our agency links people to care that is beyond the walls of the hospital,” he said. “For clients going through treatment, our meals help patients keep their strength so they don’t need to be hospitalized or be readmitted, and are less at risk of getting sick due to poor nutrition. For the people Community Servings educates, the goal is to teach good eating habits to lower the risk of diseases associated with unhealthy diets. In fact, the money spent on a patient’s care for one day in the hospital is the equivalent of feeding them for six months.”
David and his team hope to change the still persistent perception that “healthy food doesn’t taste good,” and improve education around portion control and meals overloaded with sodium. “The food system in America certainly does not help us,” he added.
As for what people can to do to help or contribute, David invites anyone interested to get more involved: “We all have a role to play in feeding the sick, and whatever your own personal resources are, you can help, whether it’s peeling carrots or making a donation. Many of us are lucky to have friends and family that would hold our hands through our illness, but for those who don’t, it’s up to us to be that family and help them through this incredibly scary time.”
For Gloria, this statement resonates. She has been cancer-free since January 2014, and decided to stop receiving meals despite continued chronic pain. “The meals were wonderful and were there for me when I needed them,” she said. “The food not only touches our lives, the whole agency touches our lives in a way that no one can explain except us.”
Lead Image Photo Credit: David Carmack