By Michael Coughlin Jr.
Community Servings, a non-profit organization based out of Jamaica Plain, has been and continues to be at the forefront of serving communities throughout Massachusetts and parts of Rhode Island through programs encompassing food. The organization, founded in 1990, began by providing hot meals to folks from Dorchester and Roxbury with HIV and AIDS. Over time, the program has expanded to providing medically-tailored meals to those throughout Massachusetts and parts of Rhode Island battling critical and chronic illnesses. The medically-tailored meals program, which helps individuals dealing with a plethora of illnesses, such as diabetes, HIV/AIDS, cancer, and more, serves those from various backgrounds and is absolutely free for clients. Just last year, Community Servings served over 5,000 clients, most of whom are referred to the organization by care providers. Per Community Servings’ July 1, 2021-June 30, 2022 annual report, 93% of the organization’s clients live under 200% of the Federal Poverty Line, 14% experience unstable housing, and 9.8% are under 18 years old. Following a referral from a care provider, the organization has a team of registered dietician nutritionists who consult with clients to determine the best diet for each person to improve their health and to educate clients on managing their illness through food. Through the organization’s medically-tailored meals program, clients receive 10 meals a week, totaling up to about 30 items, either delivered through a driver or shipped depending on a client’s location. According to Brian Hillmer, Community Servings’ Chief Culinary Officer, the complexity and customization of its nutrition intervention sets the organization apart from other programs. “Our nutrition intervention is specifically designed for each health priority a client may have. So we have 15 diets — 16 diets — but they overlay three times, so it ends up being over a 100 unique combinations of nutrition intervention that we build every day,” said Hillmer. “It’s that level of complexity and customization that I think makes us really effective for our clients,” he added. Through this program, Community Servings works from hundreds of recipes to enhance the variety for its clients, so much so that Hillmer mentioned clients could go for weeks without getting the same item. Some of the biggest hits among clients mentioned were Caponata, Pot Pie, Steak Tips, and Meatloaf. “Just because a person is unlucky enough to experience critical or chronic illnesses doesn’t mean they should be subjected to culinary austerity,” said Hillmer. Additionally, Community Servings stresses the locality of its ingredients through the organization’s local food initiative. Not only does purchasing food locally help the environment and support local economies, but according to Hillmer, it also allows Community Servings to work with food producers who align with the organization’s mission and get the best possible local food for clients. “Since we deal with producers directly, a lot of times, we’re able to actually access food that may be considered like high-end expensive, but since we’re establishing these sort of relationships and cooperative partnerships with them, we’re able to provide literally the absolute best product available in New England for our clients,’ said Hillmer. The medically-tailored meals program has seemed to be a hit with clients — 80% of clients responded to a 2022 survey that they were either extremely satisfied or very satisfied with the service. Since 2020 the meals and clients served by the organization have increased by 130%, and per Ryan Levasseur, Community Servings’ Director of Communications, the organization is projected to serve over 5,000 individual clients this year. In addition, Community Servings also has a vast amount of other programming and engages with the community at large to ensure that it can fulfill the needs of the medically-tailored meal clients. “Medically-tailored meals is in the center — think of it almost like a bicycle wheel — that’s the center, and everything else is a spoke coming off of it,” said Levasseur. For example, the organization has over 100 volunteers coming in daily to help with food preparation and other work as part of its robust volunteer program. “They could be helping butcher meats and fish; they could be prepping vegetables. So, in addition to that, they are packaging and portioning individual components that make up the bag that every client gets,” said Levasseur. Moreover, the organization offers a 12-week food-service training program called the Teaching Kitchen for individuals often facing barriers in employment to learn how to work in a food-service environment and get ServSafe training, which helps them get jobs in the food industry. “They’re here learning so that they can go out and be in a better place to get a job somewhere in food service or a restaurant. We provide them with the training and also the job placement support,” said Levasseur. “They’re also — those trainees — are also helping Brian’s [Hillmer] team make the meals for our clients. So not only are they learning, they’re contributing to what we do and what we’re able to provide,” he added. Along with all the community engagement and programs Community Servings offers, it is also doing significant things in the fields of advocacy and is a national leader in medically-tailored meal research. In terms of advocacy Community Servings is a founding partner of The Food is Medicine Coalition (FIMC), which, according to the organization’s aforementioned report, is a “national association of not-for-profit providers of medically-tailored meals and medically-tailored food and nutrition services.” The annual report also indicates that the coalition’s goal is to broaden access to the types of services mentioned above. FIMC is also supporting a bill called the Medically Tailored Home-Delivered Meal Demonstration Pilot Act. Further, FIMC has an accelerator initiative that teaches other food-related non-profits what organizations like Community Servings do to make medically-tailored meals more available in other communities. Community Servings also works with local, state, and federal representatives to shape policy around this type of work down in Washington, D.C. Last fall, there was the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health — the first such conference since 1969 in which the Biden Administration revealed a national strategy that included the types of intervention organizations like Community Servings provides. Moreover, regarding research, Community Servings has three National Institutes of Health (NIH) schedule R01 research programs which Hillmer described as “the absolute top-tier of credibility.” “The National Institutes of Health basically provides grants for it, and normally an agency might get one ever, and we’ve basically gotten three within the last like two or three years,” said Hillmer. The studies look at the impacts of things like medically-tailored meals and nutritional counseling for individuals with different conditions. For example, one study looks at the impacts of medically-tailored meals and structured nutrition counseling on individuals with type 2 diabetes who experience food insecurity. Through all of its programs, advocacy, and research, there is no doubt that Community Servings is doing its best to help continue serving the sick and local communities but also extend that support around the country. To learn more about everything Community Servings has to offer, you can visit https://www.servings.org/.