Early Experiences Led David Waters to a Career in Food Justice
By David Waters
David Waters: As a privileged white man, I had a lot to learn about social justice, health inequities, and the history of race in Boston.
Working in the food industry equipped David Waters with skills he parlayed into a food justice career as head of Community Servings, a Boston-based nonprofit provider of medically tailored meals and nutrition services to individuals and families living with critical and chronic illnesses.
This is his story.
As a child growing up with a single mother working full time to support four young kids, I found that the only time to get my mother’s attention was over the dinner table when we took turns recounting our day. That connection, breaking bread around a communal table, led me to the food industry and then into food justice.
Most of my early career involved work in the restaurant business and professional theater, interwoven with an aspiration to be a fiction writer. It was only when I became the CEO of a food justice organization that I realized that that wandering path provided me with many of the key skills I needed in my role as social entrepreneur.
As a young gay man, coming out in the early 1980s, my life was significantly impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and a fear of the virus. Some friends were sick or dying, others were actively fighting the political inertia of the time. We all became activists of one sort or another.
For me, the founding of Community Servings in 1990 as a hot meal delivery program for people living with HIV/AIDS was an opportunity to directly use my fundraising experience to respond to both the crisis and my own unconscious fear of getting sick or dying.
I joined others in developing two fundraising events for the newly formed nonprofit, leveraging my connections in the restaurant community to build support for LifeSavor and Pie in the Sky. (Both fundraisers are still going strong 30 years later, having raised millions of dollars to feed the critically ill in Massachusetts.)
Fundraising work led to a board role, and then a staff position as our first director of development. When our founding executive director moved on after nine years building the agency from nothing, I stepped into her role with big shoes to fill.
I knew a fair amount about running a food business, fundraising, and managing a board, but didn’t have much experience with HR policies, program design, or working in diverse communities. As a privileged white man, I had a lot to learn about social justice, health inequities, and the history of race in Boston.
That learning journey has been the most challenging, but also the most rewarding part of my career at Community Servings, as I get to work with so many exceptional colleagues from such a diverse array of life experiences. One of the best professional development opportunities for me was the Lead Boston program originally led by NCCJ and now YW Boston. Another was the life changing experience of the Barr Fellowship program.
What might be unique to the experience here at Community Servings is that we’ve been able to stick to a single mission but continue to evolve and diversify our programs without wandering into mission creep.
Over the past 30 years, we’ve provided almost 10 million scratch-made, medically tailored meals to critically and chronically ill clients and their families across the Commonwealth. These healthy meals are now delivered frozen every week so that clients can reheat them on their schedule.
We’ve moved from a narrow HIV focus to servings patients with 35 different primary illnesses. We’ve grown from serving two neighborhoods of Boston to providing a statewide nutrition intervention. And we’ve expanded into nutrition counseling and education, food service job training, health care research and advocacy, local foods, and technical assistance. Each of these new initiatives directly supports our core mission of feeding the sick, while increasing our impact in the communities we serve.
As we say at Community Servings, food is love, food is community, and food is medicine, as it heals both our bodies and our souls.
My teammates and I have built a work environment that embraces our shared values and aspirations. We’ve bonded through a dedication to the mission and its impact in our communities. That ongoing evolution of our program and striving for greater impact and improved operations has kept many of us here for 15, 20, even 25 years.
For me, it has provided an amazing career, working alongside exceptional colleagues, volunteers, donors, and board members. Most importantly, it has allowed me to keep growing, learning, and broadening my perspective on the world.