When the school term broke for the winter break last Friday, a special pilot program ensured that 50 students at each of the four elementary schools went home with a trove of food for the holiday break.
That thoughtful gesture was courtesy of the School Holiday Food Project, an off-shoot of the Chelsea Hunger Network that uses partners, such as youth groups and the City, to distribute food to needy families during school breaks.
“The mission here is to provide food for the families that might need it on the vacations from school when they’re not getting school food daily,” said Ron Fishman of the Hunger Network. “We try to make it as nutritious as we can and in a small package so they can fit it in a backpack on their way home.”
Last Thursday afternoon, at the First Congregational Church on County Road, about a dozen student volunteers from the Chelsea Collaborative Youth Leaders joined Fishman and other volunteers to package the food. Prior to that, food donations were delivered by City workers to the church from the St. Luke’s Food Pantry and Greater Boston Food Bank.
There were cans of tomatoes, beans, chickpeas, and tuna fish. They also had oatmeal, macaroni, spaghetti and red apples. Working at seven stations, the group packaged the bags like a well-oiled machine. The next day, last Friday, City workers again delivered the packages to the various elementary school social workers to be distributed to 50 families in each school.
The effort first took place on Thanksgiving, and were helped by the Chelsea High Youth Food Movement. Barring a few hiccups with transportation and such, it was extremely well-received.
Fishman said the Hunger Network had met and wanted to do more. After a major effort last year and a comprehensive survey, they found the top barriers to food in Chelsea were money, transportation, information on resources and fear. To remedy all four, they had thought about bringing a mobile food pantry to the schools for parents and children to access.
However, the School Department said a more pressing need was getting kids supplies of food during the school vacation periods – such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, February Vacation and Spring Break.
“They were very concerned about kids getting access to food during those vacation times, and that’s something we decided to do,” he said.
Now, he said they hope to be able to mobilize the effort six times a year.
“We’ll see how we can grow it and it’s still a pilot program, but we do want to expand it,” he said.
One of the problems in Chelsea is that as other areas of the community prosper, some segments fall further behind. That has resulted in larger numbers of people needing help.
“There is definitely a greater need for food in Chelsea and that is definitely tied to housing costs,” he said. “Rents go up and something has to go down. That’s often food. It could be medicine, but more often it’s food. What we’re doing is a drop in the bucket, but it is something.”