Storytelling Spotlight: Community Servings

This spotlight is a feature on WhyHunger’s digital storytelling website, Community Voices, that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Community Servings, Boston, MA. Story and pictures by David Hanson.

Community Servings (CS) has humble beginnings as a Jewish outreach organization responding to AIDS in the late ’80s. To this day, but especially early during the AIDS epidemic, malnutrition was a major cause of death. The simple act of feeding people properly who were diagnosed HIV+ could keep them alive. Food was a viable form of medicine. Community Servings has evolved to develop more diverse eligibility criteria, drawing clients from over 200 referral partners. It now provides medically tailored meal services to homebound families and individuals with acute life-threatening illness. Roughly 1000 individuals receive packages of five meals per week. It’s not just any healthy food. Community Servings has learned the importance of preparing beautiful, colorful, fragrant food that appeals to people who lack an appetite due to chronic illness.

Crafting such a complex menu falls on the shoulders of Chef Kevin Conner. Conner has almost two decades of experience in kitchens, including as a culinary arts professor and executive chef at the Federal Reserve. When Connor was 16 he lost his mother to diabetes so he knows how food can help and harm a body.

“With this job, the people don’t just come into the restaurant, eat the meal, then forget about it.” Connor says. “The five meals we’re delivering weekly touch their hearts and souls. We try to give the clients comfortable, familiar meals. We’re always adapting the menu. For instance, we might make a meatloaf, but we have to be careful with ketchup (sugar) for diabetics so we come up with recipes for a tasty, ketchup-free meatloaf.”

community servingsConnor works closely with Community Serving’s nutrition department to understand the best ingredients for the clients’ diverse needs. Connor is currently developing a cookbook with over 100 meals tailored to specific diets, a veritable pharmaceutical catalog of food is medicine. Everything is scratch-made to control preservatives, especially sodium and sugar. Each week, the clients receive a box with a loaf of bread, a quart of milk and five days of meals: lunch, dinner and snack at a cost of $25 per day.The kitchen operation is big, fast, mechanized and efficient. Because of clients’ weakened immune systems, extra care must be taken to remain 100% free of bacteria, especially since a large chunk of kitchen prep work is done by volunteer groups (65,000 volunteer hours/year).

“We (Community Servings) consider ourselves to be essential role players in the creative treatment of low-income individuals,” says Jean Terranova, director of Food and Health Policy at Community Servings. “We can make the case to health care providers that our meals cost no more than $25 per day per patient while a hospital bed costs around $2500 per day. If healthy, appropriate food can keep those high-frequency patients from returning to the hospital, which Medicaid might not pay for, then that’s a big savings for hospitals and a big opportunity for us and others in our field.”

There is nothing new to the idea that poor nutrition leads to chronic long-term illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. Healthy eating has long proven to be one of the most effective preventative measures, although access to healthy food remains a major challenge in many low-income communities. But what about food’s role in the treatment of sick patients? What about looking at food is medicine? Community Servings has been trying to fill that need, on a small scale, for decades. Now there’s hope that new policies could shift the movement into higher gear. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has opened the door to a vigorous conversation about new strategies for bringing together food and nutrition security providers to the table with hospitals and insurers.

Since 1969, federal standards have mandated that non-profit hospitals provide community benefits in order to maintain tax-exempt status. The majority of “community benefits” covered the cost of care for uninsured or underinsured patients. The ACA aims to have two profound effects on that model. For one, the ACA will vastly reduce the number of uninsured Americans, many of whom were without coverage due to pre-existing conditions. So there will be less need to allocate community benefit funds to cover costs of uninsured patient care. Secondly, the ACA better articulates the community benefit obligations for non-profit accountable care organizations (ACO), groups of doctors, hospitals and other health care organizations that voluntarily coalesce to give coordinated care to Medicare patients.

Read the full profile at Community Voices, a WhyHunger digital storytelling site showcasing voices of leaders and communities across the country on the front lines of food justice.

Evangeline Graham