The Salvation Army facility at 258 Chestnut Street is in full-scale operation each day, helping to distribute 500-600 food boxes that contain 35 meals in each box.
Capt. Isael Gonzales and his wife, Capt. Brenda Gonzalez, Commanding Corps Officers at the Chelsea facility, said the lines of residents have grown substantially as the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the city.
“At 8:30 a.m., 90 minutes before we open, the line was already at the corner by the [Central] Fire Station and it remained that way for three hours,” said Capt. Isael Gonzalez.
He said the number of families the Salvation Army is seeing during the crisis has quadrupled on average.
The Salvation Army, which is part of the Chelsea Hunger Network, also serves 75 “grab-and-go” hot meals each day.
“To see the need of some many people and hear their stories about the loss of jobs and having no income, I’ve never seen a greater need or more people express their appreciation for the services that we provide,” said Gonzalez, who as a college student in New York participated in Salvation Army special training and assisted the humanitarian effort following the 9/11 attacks.
Gonzalez said he is in daily correspondences with City Manager Thomas Ambrosino, conferring on the citywide food distribution efforts.
Chris Farrand, regional emergency disaster services for the Salvation Army for Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, has been instrumental in the execution of the food distribution effort in Chelsea, according to Gonzalez.
“I’ve always had a very good relationship with Chris,” said Gonzalez. “He’s become one of our closest friends the past couple of years. He’s been very helpful and it’s very good that we’re working together on this effort.”
Farrand, who oversees the state-level disaster operations, has been working with MEMA and the National Guard to provide additional support to the efforts in Chelsea.
“The National Guard is great at distribution (The food is from the Salvation Army, the City of Chelsea, and the Greater Boston Food Bank),” said Farrand. “The Guard is a very organized, orderly partner and they bring that expertise, which is really necessary in times like these, just to make it go efficiently where there are so many moving pieces.”
As the Chelsea Corps has seen a tremendous increase in need for its services, Farrand has mobilized the Salvation Army’s state assets to support Chelsea.
“When Gov. Baker reached out to MEMA to say that Chelsea was in dire need of support, MEMA reached out to us and we collaborated with the National Guard on providing 1,300 food boxes (39,000 meals in four locations) in addition to what the Corps was already doing,” Farrand.
Farrand said finding the extraordinary amount of food needed to meet the demand has become “a daily task and challenge.”
“When we first started, we could use the Food Bank, but because every community is using the Food Bank, we’re reaching out to Sysco, US Foods, BJ’s and to almost any vendor that we can find to try and keep getting the different types of product that we need.”
Farrand visited Chelsea on successive days to assist the food distribution operations and “it was something to see.”
The Chestnut Street facility has operated an existing food pantry that is open Tuesdays and Thursdays. When the COVID-19 crisis began to pummel Chelsea, the numbers spiked substantially at the pantry.
The Salvation Army’s effort is separate from the City of Chelsea’s food distribution’s effort and the Chelsea Collaborative’s food pantry. But they do converse on how best to answer the needs of Chelsea residents.
“I’m pretty much in touch daily with Chelsea city officials,” said Farrand. “Every day the goal is how do we keep ramping up resources because the need is great. There are thousands of Chelsea residents in need of food.”
According to Farrand, since the COVID-19 response started, the Salvation Army in Massachusetts has provided one million meals to residents throughout the state.
Farrand said it is an effort that requires teamwork and execution.
“The need is too great for one local pantry,” he said. “The food insecurity, the loss of jobs, the COVID-19 positive challenges – I keep saying that it’s kind of the perfect storm of needs that are requiring us to really figure out how to keep expanding our services.”
(People wishing to donate to the Salvation Army’s food distribution effort can visit: salvationarmyma.org/fill-the-food-pantry)