Food Is Medicine

Food Is Medicine, Jamaica Plain, MA
David Waters, Community Servings

The Project:
Community Servings believes food is not the cause of some of our worst healthcare challenges; instead it is the solution. Each day, Community Servings is fighting to shape the perception among Americans that “Food is Medicine,” especially in the context of managing critical and chronic illnesses in low income communities. Food insecurity and poor diet have a direct impact on escalating health care costs and alarming rates of re-hospitalization. Prescribe a medically tailored meal alongside your pill box and you have the hopes of improving recovery rates, stabilizing costs and keeping patients in their home instead of a hospital or nursing home.

For a wide range of conditions – cancer, heart failure, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and many others – the difference between a very costly hospital or advanced nursing facility stay very often comes down to the ability of people to properly feed themselves (and sometimes their families).

Community Servings is a Massachusetts-based organization that provides home delivered meals to the critically ill who are unable to provide themselves with proper meals. The organization was founded during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when nutrition and food were considered the only form of medicine for those diagnosed with the disease. Now, in an age when diet related illnesses are at record level highs, Community Servings’ mission has expanded to 35 different types of life-threatening illnesses including cancer, renal failure, kidney disease and diabetes. For those who are critically ill, especially those without a lot of resources, food plays an important role in healing. Over the past 23 years Community Servings has led the charge in delivering over 5.1 million free meals, with ninety-two percent of the clients living in poverty.

As one of the few organizations of our kind in the United States, we support our primary mission of feeding the sick through our innovative roster of community based programs. These programs fulfill a critical need in our communities, from using local donated produce and fish to feed the sick to providing ex-offenders with a means to re-enter the workforce. All of our programming involves looking at ways that food can have a significant, positive impact in our communities.

We believe we can strengthen our primary mission by engaging disenfranchised populations who need a second chance to succeed. In collaboration with the Massachusetts Parole Board and Bunker Hill Community College, we run our Step Forward Program, welcoming recent parolees into our kitchen as volunteers. One of the first programs of its type in the nation, Step Forward offers ex-offenders the opportunity to gain valuable food service skills and experience while providing Community Servings with volunteer power. After completing Step Forward, participants are given the option to take part in our Food Service Job-Training Program, a 12-week food service job-training program focused on those with barriers to employment. The program teaches basic cooking skills, life skills, food sanitation and provides job placement support. Most importantly, trainees build their self-confidence as they work alongside our staff, helping us achieve our primary mission of preparing and delivering meals to the critically ill.

Through our innovative Meals for Many Social Enterprise Program, we sell healthy, nutritious, and affordable meals to nonprofits, schools, and agencies. This social enterprise allows us to subsidize our food delivery program.

Additionally, our Local Foods Program enables us to support and collaborate with local farmers, fishermen and food producers. During the summer months, we receive 14 tons of donated produce from local farmers and we also partner with local fisheries to utilize fish that would otherwise be thrown away because it is unable to be sold at market. Just this past month, 800 pounds of zucchini was delivered to our kitchen, presenting a challenge for our chef to utilize this free produce in a creative way in the thousands of meals that were created that week. Moreover, we market local produce and fish to our neighbors in exchange for donated surplus food from our venders, helping us achieve our primary mission.

Finally, our Nutrition Education and Counseling Program supplements our food delivery program by providing healthy eating courses focused on cooking, shopping, and good nutrition, as well as a series of monthly community workshops. We also offer home visits to teach people how to counter the toxic side effects of their medical treatments and cope with other diet-related issues.

Community Servings delivers 395,000 free, home-style meals annually to 1,300 people who are too sick to cook for themselves or their families. Currently caring for clients with 35 different life-threatening illnesses, our service includes a customized, nutritionally-packed lunch, dinner, and snack for sick clients, their caregivers and dependent children, 95% of whom live at or below the poverty level. Our geographic service area includes 215 square miles across eastern Massachusetts. As the only program of its kind in New England, we offer 25 different medically-appropriate menus each week, including a Children’s Menu. In addition, the programs supporting our main mission also have a positive impact the community.

This year, we will serve more than 300 individuals and family members through our Nutrition Education and Counseling Program. Our self-empowering Food Service Job-Training Program will engage 40 trainees and with a 75% post-training job placement rate, many participants will receive permanent jobs with benefits. Through our innovative Meals for Many Social Enterprise Program, we currently prepare over 600 meals per day for local schools and nonprofits. Our Local Foods Program benefits both our sick clients and Jamaica Plain residents, addressing the “food desert” in the urban neighborhood in which we are located. Numerous ex-offenders qualify for vouchers to take courses at Bunker Hill Community College, apply for our Teaching Kitchen job-training program, or move directly into employment after participating in our Step Forward Program. Finally, we have been an advocate for state food and nutrition services as part of the Essential Health Benefits package through the federal Affordable Care Act. Ultimately, we would like to see programs like ours serving the community in all regions of the United States.

In fiscal year 2012, Community Servings experienced a dramatic 13 percent increase in demand for home-delivered, medically tailored meals for the critically ill. .  That’s up from an average annual three percent increase – representing a more than six-fold growth in demand for services. Additionally, the number of clients Community Servings is helping grew by 17 percent in the last year. On average, the organization experiences one percent annual growth in the number of clients it serves. There is a growing awareness of this gap and the important role that home-delivered, medically-tailored meals can play – not only in improving patient health, but to help in the fight to control rising healthcare costs by keeping patients out of the hospital and in their homes.  The increased demand for our services is a reflection of this recognition by health providers across the state.

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