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How a nonprofit meals provider will triple the people it serves

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A group of MIT Sloan students has worked with Community Servings, a Boston nonprofit that delivers meals to chronically ill people, to help it triple the number of people it serves each year.

The MIT students identified opportunities for efficiency that would help Community Servings’ meet its goals, and proposed changes to the way it cooks and delivers its medically appropriate meals.

As part of its planned growth, Community Servings recently launched the construction of a $21.5 million, 31,000-square-foot “Food Campus” that includes a larger kitchen facility. Chief operating officer Rebecca Donato said the MIT Sloan students’ work is an important part of achieving the goal of serving more people.

“We can’t expand without being more efficient,” Donato said. “We couldn’t meet our goal without streamlining our production.”

The students’ opportunity to work with Community Servings came through Healthcare Lab, one of 16 MIT Sloan Action Learning programs. From September through February, teams of students are matched with a business to help solve a real problem. The team that worked with Community Servings included Evan Humphrey, SCM ’18; Sofya Kravchenko, MBA ’18; Katherine Luby, SF ’18; Yinying Ren, Ph.D. Chemical Eng, ’19; and Shantanu Sathe, MBA ’18.

Community Servings prepares meals from scratch that meet the nutritional needs of people suffering from chronic illnesses. Last year, it provided and delivered more than 675,000 meals to more than 2,000 critically ill individuals and their families.

The nonprofit planned to triple the meals it serves but knew that could come with a surge in packaging costs, and asked for help solving that problem. But ultimately, the team would make recommendations about the organizations meals and recipes that would help it serve more people. 

Grassroots beginnings and growing pains Community Servings started out in 1990, preparing meals to combat malnutrition among AIDS patients. It started by serving 30 people. Over time, however, it gradually widened its mission to include feeding people with diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, and other afflictions. It currently serves 15 different types of medical diets.

Studies have demonstrated that delivering nutritious meals to medically vulnerable patients can reduce health insurance and medical costs. Community Servings current expansion is driven in part by interest from health insurers, who increasingly recognize proper nutrition can help people avoid costly trips to the emergency room, Donato said.

Community Servings became less efficient as it embraced a broader mission, however. For instance, Community Servings was providing meals for more than 140 unique diet combinations — some of which served only a handful of clients, Sathe, a member of the student team, said. This approach complicated cooking, ordering ingredients, and packaging meals for delivery and storage.

What’s more, the meals weren’t prepared systematically, Sathe said. The recipes Community Servings used weren’t calibrated to produce an exact number of meals every single time.

The students presented their findings in February. The students proposed slimming down the 140 unique diets for which Community Servings provided meals. A lot of this could be accomplished, Sathe said, just by using ingredients like vegetable broth that are less restrictive than, say, pork broth. The team also created a recipe database that automatically selects what food to cook. As a result, there’d be fewer distinct meals to be prepared each week. Also, recipes would be standardized, reducing waste.

Community Servings has adopted the team’s recommendations, Donato said. It’s already reduced unique diets combinations to 87 from 140, and it’s using the recipe database. The organization will still serve the same people and still be able to provide medically appropriate meals, she said.

Building operations to match goals Donato said the MIT team was like having a group of Bain consultants working their problem. Community Servings knew it would face inefficiencies as it grew, Donato said. The expertise of the MIT team offered a set of fresh eyes to help find opportunities to optimize operations before the expansion. The operation as it was wouldn’t be capable of meeting the goal of serving more meals.

While not the same as consulting, H-Lab teaches students to identify problems and come up with solutions while working with real businesses, said Melissa Webster, an MIT Sloan lecturer and mentor to the H-Lab team. What’s more, the students had to pivot and adapt on the fly, just as in the business world.

“By design, the project is meant to reflect real-world challenges,” Webster said. “We like to connect to the MIT motto of ‘Mind and Hand,’ so it combines the theoretical and the real world, and it’s through projects like this that it happens.”

Sathe said it was rewarding to work with a real business on such a challenging and complicated problem.

“I got to use everything I learned in class to figure out what the problem was, and then to convince the client to think about what to do,” Sathe said. “It was humbling to work on a problem this large.”

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