LeadBoston inspires job-training program at nonprofit Community Servings


LeadBoston, YW Boston’s inclusive leadership program, empowers participants to expand and challenge their existing knowledge of Boston’s socioeconomic landscape. On one program day, during a visit to the Suffolk County House of Corrections, David Waters, LeadBoston Class of 2003, became inspired to create a job-training program at his Jamaica Plain-based organization Community Servings. Community Servings is a “not-for-profit food and nutrition program providing services throughout Massachusetts and in Rhode Island to individuals and families living with critical and chronic illnesses.” David Waters, CEO, credits LeadBoston with his organization’s decision to begin a job training program serving “people interested in careers in the food service industry who face barriers to full-time employment” in 2008.

YW Boston recently sat down with David to hear about his LeadBoston experience and learn more about Community Servings’ successful job-training program:

1. You started at Community Servings as a volunteer in 1990. What has been your progression through the organization?

Community Servings is a food and nutrition program for people who are too sick to feed themselves. We feed about 2,500 people a year across Massachusetts who are at a stage of an illness where they can’t shop and cook for themselves or feed their families. Our roots are in the HIV epidemic. We started feeding 30 people a day living with AIDS in Roxbury and Dorchester in 1990, and have grown significantly since then to feed people with any illness.

I was in the restaurant business and was a volunteer when the organization was first founded. In those days, I was a young gay man who feared AIDS, and the way I found to cope with it was to volunteer in something that I knew – the food business and fundraising. I was a volunteer, who became a board member, and then became our first Director of Development. I have been the CEO for twenty years this fall. It has grown a lot since that time. It is an intervention that is getting a lot of attention, the idea of “Food is Medicine,” or using food in the context of healthcare.

2. What are you most excited about right now for Community Servings?

We are interested in proving that food is an important part of healthcare. [We have found that] if we feed a critically ill patient, we can lower their insurance by 16%, which creates a new business argument for why low-income sick people should be fed. It is going to allow us to feed a lot more people through contracts with health insurance companies. We all know intuitively that if you eat a healthier diet then you are going to do better. What we are trying to do is incorporate it into healthcare. Rather than just telling someone what to do, [we are] actually helping them to do it, because none of us can manage potassium and phosphorous in our diets. One of the things we are launching this fall is an accelerator to teach what we do around the country, so that it could be developed in other communities. If there is a food program and a health insurance company that want to work together, we can teach them how to prepare complex medical diets. The meals we provide are medically tailored to the patients’ needs. If you have diabetes that has led to kidney failure and you have heart failure, you need a cardiac, renal, diabetic diet. That is managing potassium, phosphorous, glucose, and sodium. Most of us couldn’t do that in a daily meal, but certainly not if you have a lot of other barriers in your life. It makes sense for your healthcare to help you do that, because you are going to stay out of the hospital.

I often say that Community Servings came to our theory of change late in life. We started just feeding people, because they were people starving with HIV. One of the things that HIV manifests is malnutrition – what’s called AIDS Wasting Syndrome, where your body essentially attacks itself. The only medicine was to feed people, because the first drugs hadn’t been invented yet, so food was the only medicine. Now, with complex people having multiple illnesses and helping people to manage their diet, [partnering with healthcare] is pretty exciting because it is going to be transformational.

3. What first led you to apply to LeadBoston?

I was in the Class of 2003, and I knew that it was a good program for leadership development and getting to know other business leaders. What I didn’t know was how much I would learn about social justice. I came to this without a background in social change. My background was more in business, entrepreneurship, and food. Early on as a CEO, LeadBoston was a great background for me to understand more about dynamics in the neighborhoods, racial justice and equity issues that, as a white male, I might not have been tuned into. A lot of what I use now are things I learned through [this] primary on social justice.

4. Was there a particular LeadBoston program day that stood out to you?

It was a day [we visited the] Suffolk County House of Corrections. We were in a cell block with a group of women, and they all said, ‘We learned our lesson, we are not coming back.’ Then we stepped out with the guards and the administrators and they said ‘50% will be back within two weeks.’ That was this very disturbing ‘aha moment’ to me. Many of Community Servings employees have CORIs (criminal backgrounds) and they are very successful here. They don’t cycle back into the system and that experience caused me to ask, ‘Why are our employees being successful, and these women are not?’

Out of that came the idea of creating a job-training program for re-entry populations. Community Servings has a huge volunteer program and so we have always had a lot of volunteers from the re-entry and recovery community. We have often hired those people over the years because they were here and they were reliable and they were good workers and they showed themselves to be a great potential employee to us. Through osmosis, a third of our employees have had criminal backgrounds. The idea of a job-training program was [asking]: How do we replicate that for a bigger population? We are not going to go hire the whole world, so how could we create that for other people?

We designed a 3-month job-training curriculum in food service skills for folks with barriers to employment. It is specifically for four populations: re-entry, recovery, mental health, and homelessness. Most of our trainees have three out of the four of those barriers. We teach them how to cook, how to operate an industrial kitchen. We teach them job readiness skills. We get them their food license and we work with them for a year to get a job. It has a very high success rate and what we have come to realize is that their biggest barrier to employment is typically not a lack of work history or a criminal record. It is a lack of self-esteem. They come in thinking they have no value. We say, ‘No, no, no. We need you as much as you need us, because while you are here, you are going to help us make meals. You give every bit as much as we give you.’ In the course of three months, you see the light come back in their eyes. It is very exciting for us who witness it, and it makes for a very powerful program.

We go to restaurants that are friends of ours and say, ‘Hey, we vouch for so-and-so.” That gives them entrees into the food world that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. This is an intervention that is proven to work.

4. After this LeadBoston experience, what steps did you take to make it into the program that it is now?

I brought the idea back to my team and said, “What would it take to do this?” We had to make sure that in doing this, we weren’t just randomly moving off of our core mission, which is to feed sick people. The idea that by doing training, it would allow us to feed more people, was very powerful for both the staff and the board. Ultimately, if we can address prison recidivism issues, or food waste in the local food systems, or health care and policy reform, it is a way for us to leverage the core mission in other directions.

I use the graphic of a daisy, where our founding mission is to feed sick people is at the core of the daisy. If you think of the petals, our job-training program is providing free labor, but it is addressing prison issues. Our local farm food reclamation program is bringing free food into our kitchen, but it is also highlighting issues of food waste. Our research and policy work. These things would look like they were off message, except that they are closely tied to somehow supporting the medical meals program.

5. How do you feel that your personal leadership has evolved by participating in the LeadBoston program?

I came to [LeadBoston] not knowing what I did not know, and really being introduced to other perspectives and other sides of the community. I’m always interested in meeting people who are different than me. If I lived in the world where everyone was just like me, has the same life experience I had, it would be incredibly dull. One of the things I love about Community Servings and LeadBoston is that I’m constantly meeting people with different life stories and they’ve overcome different barriers than I have, and that makes for an incredibly exciting and enriching environment.

LeadBoston and YW Boston and its social justice focus remind people of [not just] what a great city Boston is, but what a great city it could be. Right now is such a scary time in terms of social dynamics, that the more that we band together to build the best city we can, best community we can, is really important. I would say that for me, going through LeadBoston was one of the keys to having a career that was focused on doing good and transforming communities.

"LeadBoston and YW Boston and its social justice focus remind people of [not just] what a great city Boston is, but what a great city it could be." -David Waters, CEO of @communityserv and @LeadBoston Class of 2003 Click To Tweet
6. Who do you think should be applying to LeadBoston, and what would you recommend to people who are considering it?

People who want to know Boston. What I realized through LeadBoston was, the Boston that most people think of is about this big (David making small gesture), and the real Boston is about like this (him making a larger gesture), if you look on a map. Most of us, particularly in the corporate world, know the financial district and Back Bay, but don’t know Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park. That is ultimately the bulk of the neighborhoods – the bulk of the land mass. I think LeadBoston, when you get out to seeing an inner-city school, or going to Suffolk County [House of Corrections], or engaging in other current issues, it informs your business world. It informs your social world, and it certainly informs your value system.

Do you wish to deepen your understanding of Boston and its systems?

Applications for the LeadBoston Class of 2020 are now open – click here to learn more about the program, apply to join, or refer a peer to our next cohort. 


About LeadBoston

Become a part of YW Boston’s LeadBoston program and join a network of over 1,000 inclusive leaders in Boston. During this 10-month program, participants explore and learn how to address barriers to inclusion through facilitated dialogue, expert speakers, and peer learning. Through experiential activities, participants delve into the socioeconomic realities of Boston and explore innovative solutions to inequity.