Boston- Lisa Belyea, bed ridden with multiple sclerosis, knew her husband did his best to feed them. But George, a forklift operator, couldn’t do much more than cook hot dogs and beans or microwave a grocery store frozen meal. It was depressing and unhealthy. But not anymore. On a recent day, George, 66, carried into their Quincy kitchen a bag packed with 10 freshly prepared frozen dinner entrees and desserts, as well as lunch soups and salads, and snacks. He and Lisa will eat the food and then get a similar bounty each week, thanks to the non-profit organization Community Servings. “Almost every week it’s like Christmas,” said Lisa, 59. “We go through the bag and it’s like, ‘Wow, what did we get?’ It’s exciting. The food is really good and I get all the nutrition I need.” The only program of its kind in New England, Community Servings provides meals made from scratch to people unable to cook for themselves because of medical conditions. Their children and caregivers also receive meals. Its mantra is “Delivering meals, delivering hope.” The food is both nutrition and comfort, and its creation and delivery are a marvel of organization and commitment. In its industrial kitchen in Jamaica Plain last week, professional chefs cooked 855 Christmas Cornish hen dinners, with sides and pumpkin pie. Holli Van Nest of Randolph was one of about 50 volunteers who helped throughout the day, joining a packaging and labeling assembly line. Last week, she spent hours preparing holiday gift baskets. “It’s a nice feeling to know you are useful and going to make a difference to people who are sick,” said Van Nest, a contract administrator who has been a volunteer for 12 years. “The people who work here make sure we know we are appreciated.” Van Nest and other volunteers have a year-round Christmas spirit that allows Community Servings to thrive. From 50-75 volunteers prep and package 8,750 meals a day, six days a week, for severely ill people, prepared by professional chefs and food service trainees. What’s more, chefs cook up to 25 types of meals, adapted for people with diabetes, kidney failure, lactose intolerance and other conditions. Although the volume is large, the chefs prepare all the food from scratch because they want it to be both flavorful and attractive. “Because our clients are sick and losing their appetite, we have to think about what would motivate them to eat,” said executive director David Waters. “If it looks like cafeteria food, people won’t eat it. Our goal is to bring meals that evoke memories of a safe and secure time. The food can be a powerful gift if it gives a sense of solace and love.” The chefs, who come from a variety of backgrounds and countries, often adapt their family recipes, so that the dishes reflect the cuisines of different cultures. The standard meal is high in protein, low in salt and has lots of fresh vegetables – thanks in part to the 2,000 pounds of local produce donated weekly. Snacks are fruit, yogurt and cereal.
When Community Servings started in 1989, it provided food for just 30 people with HIV/AIDS. Since moving into a larger kitchen in 2007, it has grown dramatically, now feeding 855 people a day in 18 cities, including 132 people in Quincy, Braintree, Weymouth, Randolph and Brockton. Last year, Community Servings trucks – staffed with a volunteer and a driver – delivered 395,000 meals to the homes of 1,450 people throughout the state.
People are accepted into the program based on a doctor’s evaluation, which must be repeated each year. The most common of the 35 types of illness are cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, Parkinson’s, liver and kidney disease, hepatitis, and lupus. Most people receive meals for six months, while others receive them for many years.
“Eligibility involves looking at medical issues and mobility issues,” Waters said. “From that, we’ll determine whether the person is sick enough to need our meals.”
Waters would like to expand into more communities, but is limited by the $5 1/2 million budget. The money comes almost entirely from charitable giving, with the exception of government money for patients with AIDS. One of its biggest fund raisers is Pie in the Sky, which sells Thanksgiving pies donated by bakers from Greater Boston’s finest bakeries and restaurants.
George Belyea, now retired, prefers to pick up meals, rather than have them delivered, because he enjoys visiting the kitchen. Earlier this month, Belyea brought food and clothing he purchased for the Community Servings Christmas baskets. It was one way for him to thank the staff and volunteers for their kindness and generosity.
“When I see them, I see Santa Claus,” he said. “That’s how nice they make me feel. These people are so good. And helping them give to other people makes me feel good too.”