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A hunger to serve For clients of Community Servings, the path to health goes through the stomach

Victoria Cheng | 7/28/2009, 7:35 a.m.

From succulent peach cobbler to hearty macaroni and cheese or spicy Spanish beef, there are certain foods that just always taste like home. These are the dishes Community Servings is intent on delivering.

The organization, originally based in Dorchester and now located in Jamaica Plain, was founded 18 years ago as a program to provide home-cooked meals to Boston residents diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. From an original clientele of 30 people who received three meals a week, the service has since expanded to include individuals with any illness, from cancer to kidney failure, and now provides 700 people from Lynn to Lawrence with three squares a day, five days a week.

As the only program of its kind in New England, Community Servings also operates on two unusual principles, said executive director David Waters.
The range of available options caters to the sensitive needs of the organization’s clientele, many of whom have very little appetite due to their medication, according to Waters.

“We have 22 different medically tailored diets, including diabetic, bland, low-fat [and] vegetarian; we chop the food if you can’t chew; and just a year ago we started a kids’ menu,” he said.

The program also addresses an often-overlooked facet of food: what he called “the emotional aspect.”

“When you’re sick or perhaps dying, you’re reverting back to your childhood,” said Waters, “and we all have food from our own cultures that remind us of our childhood.”

These foods, he explained, not only provide motivation to people with illnesses to eat despite their lack of appetite, but also, by creating a nostalgic memory of youth, can make them feel safe.

Bodies struggling with illness need nutrients for survival and recovery. This was a key impetus for the creation of Community Servings, especially in the program’s early years, before the development of effective treatment for HIV/AIDS, when an HIV-positive diagnosis was a summary death sentence.

“People who had HIV in the early years would lose 40 pounds of lean body mass in a few weeks, and the majority of people who died in early years actually died of malnutrition, not of the virus,” Waters noted.

The program now serves a population that is simultaneously diverse (clients are white, African American and Latino, range in age from 2 to 102, and suffer from everything from lupus to hypertension) and similar (95 percent live in poverty, and all are affected by a critical illness).

In allowing affected individuals and their families to gather around a meal together instead of having a bag of chips and a soda or buying food from McDonald’s, Waters said, the program is also crucial in facilitating a semblance of life as normal.

The Community Servings kitchen runs much as one would expect of an operation producing over 10,000 individualized meals a week.

Large flats of food are loaded onto pallets that deliver the goods to storage rooms, arranged by the nature of the food: dry storage, produce and meat. The 20 staff members who work in the kitchen, aided by an army of 800 volunteers a month, pull the food from the freezers into the industrial-size kitchen, where enormous vats, usually filled with soup or mashed potatoes, sit next to a multi-purpose oven that can steam, bake or roast food as directed.

Once the food is prepared, it is chilled and carted over to a packing line, where Spanish beef is spooned into biodegradable cartons, and fruit cups or brownie plates are hermetically sealed.

Before assuming his current position as executive director, Waters was the general manager at Upstairs at the Pudding, a well-known Harvard Square restaurant that closed its doors in 2001. He and the entire staff eat lunch at work every day, sampling the fare prepared for Community Servings’ clients.

“We really try to distinguish the food so that it’s not institutional,” he said, adding that the chefs emphasize the importance of steaming vegetables so that they’re not overcooked, of seasoning foods with fresh herbs and flavorful ingredients such as olives and tomatoes, and of procuring recipes from the staff themselves, many of whom grew up in Puerto Rico, El Salvador or the South.

Cindy Yang, a program evaluator who calls clients to ask for their opinions on the food, tells of one woman whose 102 year-old mother was on the soft food diet and who was surprised at the quality of the fare.

“‘I ate one of her meals,’ Yang said, quoting the daughter, “‘and it was so good … if the soft diet’s that good, I wonder what the regular diet’s like!’”

Waters’ favorite story is of a woman with breast cancer who had just undergone a double mastectomy and had no appetite at all. Community Servings brought her meals that included peach cobbler for dessert, and the woman, who mentioned that her mother used to make peach cobbler, ate the entire dessert and from there progressed to consuming entire meals.

Reflecting on similarities between his tenure as general manager of an upscale restaurant and as executive director of a program like Community Servings, Waters noted that customers in both groups are equally opinionated about the quality of the food.

But at Community Servings, he added, those comments reflect a general concern for life beyond illness, and so customer opinion, good or bad, is always welcome.

“It means they’re still engaged,” Waters said, “and that they haven’t given up.”