Cares Act: City Planning Worker Transitions to Food Supply Coordinator

About two months ago, Ben Cares was tucked away at his desk in the City’s Planning Department, mostly only going outside during a workday to take a site visit to a park that was to be renovated, or scouting out locations for the City’s upcoming BlueBike program.

That was then.

Now, just 45 days later, his day starts around 5:30 a.m. in the office answering e-mails, but his job quickly morphs into a day outside at the PORT Park doing his new normal of a job – coordinating the food supply for thousands of residents in the city who have lost reliable access to food and basic supplies.

“I got a text from our planner Alex Train who said he thought they might need me to help with food support staff,” said Cares. “In the nascent stages of the program, I was trying to figure out what the food distribution system was like in Chelsea. I always had an interest in food systems and studied a little about it in school. We started at the senior center with a small operation, then it moved to the PORT Park and then we expanded across the street from there. Now we’re doing around 750 boxes of food a day, which equates to providing 1,500 individuals with food every day and then another 100 boxes delivered to homes every day. It happened very quick over the course of three weeks. Now we’re getting into the flow and trying to ramp up to doing more boxes a day.”

Cares is part of a team at the PORT Park that receives a delivery of 45,000 pounds of food each day on pallets from the Greater Boston Food Bank. They quickly have to break it all down, put it into boxes and then get it ready for distribution at the various sites around the City. The estimate is they need to feed 18,000 people in the city who now do not have a way to feed themselves or their families – with another portion of those needing food being the large numbers of COVID-19 patients who are at home and need help.

They hope to be able to distribute 1,000 boxes a day to the pantries, he said, and another 500 for home deliveries.

He works with a very motivated team, including Ron Fishman of the Chelsea Hunger Network – a veteran of providing food to those in need long before anyone had heard of COVID-19. They utilize a large group of volunteers and other City workers to get the job done every day.

Cares is also another example of municipal workers at City Halls all over the region who have put their regular duties to the side and focused on helping to feed their cities. The same is happening in Everett, where Inspectional Services workers are delivering more than 400 hot meals per day to senior citizens and the infirm between inspection visits.

Cares said he goes to City Hall at 5:30 a.m. every morning to do some of his regular job, answering e-mails and following up on projects that still need attention.

By 7 a.m., he is at the PORT Park site to open up the operations and receive the deliveries of food that come in every morning. After about four hours of breaking down pallets and sorting food into individual boxes, it’s time to deliver. With a group of volunteers and City workers known as Team Rubicon, they deliver the boxes to the sites and then make home deliveries.

At about 7:30 p.m., he returns to City Hall to answer any e-mails before going home and getting ready to start it all over again.

He said the situation with COVID-19 in Chelsea has illuminated the socio-economic disparities in the public health and food system – something that existed in Chelsea before the outbreak, but a condition he said is seen on the front lines all the more.

“It’s a lot of people who have the virus, but in Chelsea, there is such a high socio-economic costs because of the virus,” he said. “It’s like putting the local economy in a vise grip. The need is 10 times what it was.”

Working now mostly on the logistics end of things, Cares said he recalls on one of the first days of the food distribution effort going to the door of a woman who desperately needed food.

“She opened the door and saw me there with the food and started to break down and cry,” he said. “That was a poignant moment. Now that I’m on the logistics side, I have to draw from that moment. It’s not just beans and rice and potatoes and fruit. This is going to people who really need it. That’s why it has been a privilege for me to take on this role. Not only can I do something that helps so many, but it’s also a huge challenge and daunting.”

Cares has worked in the City’s Planning Department for almost two years.

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