Ehrika Tourigny dons a hairnet and heads toward an industrial sink where she scrubs her hands for a total of 43 seconds. Then she slips on a pair of rubber gloves. This is all standard practice for volunteers at the Boston nonprofit Community Servings, a food and nutrition program that serves families impacted by a critical or chronic illness. Tourigny has been connected with the organization for more than eight years as a volunteer delivery driver, but has never been inside the kitchen—until now.
“I was excited that, one, Northeastern is supporting community service, and two, that I got to see another side of the volunteer opportunities here,” says Tourigny, associate manager of human resources management at Northeastern.
Tourigny is one of about 20 university staff members who visited Community Servings on Thursday to help prepare food, assemble packages, and label meal bags. The volunteer opportunity is the latest in an on-going effort by Northeastern’s Facilities department to partner with other university offices on community service projects in Boston. Maria Galarza, manager of administration and special projects in the Facilities and Campus Planning divisions, has spearheaded the effort.
After making their way into the kitchen, already abuzz with activity, volunteers find a place to plug in among the food prep and cook staff. Community Servings, which is located in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, prepares about 2,600 meals per day, delivering food to clients within a 300 square-mile service area. The organization relies on about 75 volunteers each day to keep things running smoothly.
The kitchen smells phenomenal. There are tri-tip steaks heating up on a massive grill, roasted vegetables hot out of the oven, and freshly chopped squash and carrots awaiting their final destination—a simmering vat of seasoned soup stock. Everything looks fresh—and it is. Community Servings sources most of the produce from local farms, either taking donations of excess fare or buying what’s needed for specific dishes.
The food is nutritious and appears genuinely appetizing. But even more impressive for a high-volume kitchen, the meals are medically-tailored for clients whose ages range from 2 to over 100.
“If you’re a cardiac renal diabetic, we can still accommodate you,” says Alexandra Fioretti, manager of volunteer services at Community Servings. She is vigilant in making sure everyone follows the hygiene protocol, which even includes a special hairnet for beards. Finding a hair in your food is never ideal, but for critically-ill clients, the inconvenience could become a life-threatening food-borne pathogen. The staff and volunteers don’t take any chances.
Fioretti explains that in addition to preparing and delivering meals, Community Servings also runs a teaching kitchen. Members of the community can take classes and learn cooking skills that make them competitive for service industry jobs. The nonprofit also offers help crafting resumés and searching for employment opportunities.
The phrase “Food Heals” appears frequently on décor and signage throughout the Community Servings building. It’s a concept that drives the entire organization.
“What we’re trying to do here is change the healthcare system so that it will help pay for nutrition and food. People are realizing more and more now that food is medicine,” Fioretti says. “We’re actually decreasing medical bills and ambulance rides and all of that, just by giving people nutritious food they don’t have access to otherwise. If everyone did this, we could decrease healthcare costs overall.”
The Northeastern volunteers blend in seamlessly with the kitchen staff, forming assembly lines to parcel pasta salad into individual containers, peel carrots, and slice up roasted red peppers. Elham Ghabbour is a principal research scientist in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. But today, she’s chopping onions like a pro.
“It’s kind of like lab work,” Ghabbour says. She’s wearing three pairs of gloves on her non-dominant hand, which is arranged over the onion like a claw, just as she was instructed during training. That way, a rogue knife can only graze knuckles, rather than slice off fingertips. Ghabbour says the knife she’s using is bigger than anything she has at home. But she doesn’t seem phased.
“I do it with love,” she says.
To register for a community service event, contact Maria Galarza at email@example.com.