Plop. A scoop of polenta falls into its container. Plastic rustles as workers down the line tie up bags full of soup containers. Metals scrape together as trays are pulled from their stands. People chat with each other and ask for instructions over a cheesy R&B song begging some guy’s woman to come back to him. These are the sounds of Community Servings’ volunteer kitchen.
Community Servings is a Boston-based organization that started in 1990 to provide meals to people with HIV and AIDS. Today the organization provides meals for thousands of people and families experiencing “critical and chronic illness,” and ensures the food meets the specific dietary needs of individuals. Many of these clients are people of color and most live below the poverty line. It can be hard for them to access any food, nevermind food that is healthy and aligns with their medical needs. Services like the ones provided by Community Servings are truly necessary for making the world more equitable and helping people survive. And while this equality and support is crucial on its own, Community Servings goes a step beyond to ensure that feelings of community, care, and love are instilled in everything they do.
The importance of this community extends beyond clients and into the work of volunteers. Community Servings relies greatly on volunteer work (75 to 100 volunteers a day) to package and prepare meals for clients. Some of its other sectors, such as nutrition research and system design, have also sourced the work through volunteer services. In turn for all they give, volunteers benefit from valuable experiences where they truly feel the importance of their work. Brian Hillmer, the chief culinary officer for the organization, believes Community Servings provides a chance for people to really feel important in their world. “We provide a space where people who are interested in caring for their neighbors… can come and contribute,” he explained. “They feel the value that we’re creating.”
Regular volunteer Beth Merica agreed that her work at Community Servings always comes with a very concrete reward. “There are many times in our lives when we don’t necessarily feel like our work has an impact,” she said. “I see those meals go in, and I think ‘these are gonna help people.’” She knows each bag she packs is another family fed, each cookie she wraps goes to a little kid who will be happy to have dessert. She knows the work of volunteers at Community Servings is truly life changing.
Of course none of this means anything without considering the clients whose lives are being changed, a consideration that Community Servings keeps at the forefront of its work. “[Clients] are very central to why everyone in the agency does the work that we do,” Hillmer says. “We work very hard to never lose sight of the person that’s at the end of the production.” The organization’s systems of client feedback and accessible nutrition counseling are some examples of this hard work. Even more, this care for clients allows clients to build an emotional connection with Community Servings. Recounting his early days as a delivery driver, Hillmer said: “there was one client in particular that has stuck in my memory for the last five years. When we came to his apartment, he was waiting outside for us. And as we handed him the food, he basically thanked us and said ‘you know, your food is saving my life.’” This experience is demonstrative of all that Community Servings offers: life changing meals, a space to be vulnerable, and a community that truly cares for its people.
But while the work of Community Servings is truly incredible, many on the team want to live in a world where their work isn’t necessary. Valerie Machinist, the director of nutrition and client services, said that world will take a lot more work than meals from a nonprofit. She points to legislation being discussed that would allow medically tailored meals to be covered by insurance as a step in the right direction, also saying that the medical community needs to have many more conversations about food. It’s these big, systemic changes, Machinist believes, that will make food accessible in the way it needs to be.
Until those changes come about, Community Servings will be doing all it can to get people the meals they need. They have a second location planned to open in Mansfield in early 2024. This new location will make it easier to deliver meals to people in southern Massachusetts and even expand beyond the state into Rhode Island. This is reflective of their long term goals to continue growing and expanding so they can get food to as many people as possible. If you want to help this mission of making food accessible, make sure to look into Community Servings and find a way to donate or volunteer.