For Gladys Vega and the Chelsea Collaborative, not even a COVID-19 vaccine is going to solve the hunger problem in Chelsea.
Seeing no end to the need for food amidst the pandemic, Vega announced this week that the Collaborative will continue doing food distributions for the next three years – making it a new mission of their organization, an organization that has risen from the chaos of COVID in Chelsea to be a prime provider for all residents of the city.
“I have met with my Board and we’re going to keep going in the food business,” she said on Monday at their temporary distribution site on Sixth Street. “We’re hoping to do this at least three more years. The need is going to continue until the community gets their jobs back.”
Already, Vega, Council President Roy Avellaneda and a cast of devoted volunteers have been working tirelessly to serve thousands with food at the Collaborative location on Broadway. That changed in July, when the floors began to buckle under the weight of constant, heavy pallets of food. Additionally, Avellaneda said, as the downtown started to pick up and having long food lines wasn’t good for the district.
“By late June, it was clear that many things were going to come back and businesses were getting more active on Broadway,” said Avellaneda. “The operations at the Chelsea Collaborative were ramping up and there were concerns about the long lines…It was important for the Chelsea Collaborative to be a good neighbor. Everyone understood it was a humanitarian effort, but the Collaborative didn’t want to be a nuisance.”
Now, they have leased the old industrial building on Sixth Street down from City Hall from The Neighborhood Developers, which is planning an affordable housing project there next year. Vega said they have a lease there until June 2021, and had to do a tremendous amount of work to get it up to snuff for distributing food, but it has worked out well.
She said with a new mission to focus on food in the coming years, they will also begin looking for another permanent location to do the food work, while using their office on Broadway for the traditional Collaborative human services work.
“We’re extremely blessed to be here and to be able to provide this help,” she said. “As people go back in to work, sometimes they go back with only 20 hours and not full-time jobs. They all have lost their benefits or health insurance. They can’t contribute to buying food on their budget. Two boxes of food is about $80. That $80 is a big deal when you’re down to 20 hours a week and making $12.75 an hour.”
One of the things, Vega said, about their food operations now is they have a dedicated group of volunteers that are careful and safe in and out of the operations. They stay within the same circles so as not to get COVID-19, as it would shut down all of the distributions. Meanwhile, they have also become agile so they are flexible to distribute from their warehouse on Sixth Street, or they can go on the road.
“The best thing about the distribution here is the Collaborative is so organized and flexible and we move within a day,” she said, adding that is critical when dealing with getting food to people in need. “When the sidewalk was being fixed, we got out to the neighborhood. We’re extremely flexible…We are always worried about an accident and we’re learning as we go.”
As an example, Avellaneda cited how they delivered food last weekend to Anchor’s Weigh to older adults who cannot get out. On his voicemail was a personal message of thanks from a senior to him and Vega and their volunteers – a woman who said she didn’t know what she would do without the food deliveries.
There are hundreds of messages like that, and even people who stop by.
“We had a woman who came here for every distribution with her kids and she said when she went back to work, she was going to give back to us,” said Vega. “Not long ago, she showed up with a huge order of pastries for us to give out. She had gone back to work and used her first paycheck to buy food and bring it to the Collaborative. We see that so often.”
Right now, for the month of October, the distribution includes a rare commodity of meat, dairy and eggs from the USDA Farmers to Food Program. That will expire at the end of October, but it gives extra boxes and new things like meat – which they were not able to give out in the traditional food boxes.
For both Vega and Avellaneda, they could have never predicted they would be standing on a loading dock on Sixth Street – rounding up any kind of donation and funding they could get when the operation began on March 5.
At that time, Vega had begun to hear of people losing their jobs, and that the virus might be hitting Boston soon. She started by delivering groceries in her son-in-law’s SUV, and then it expanded to a few more cars – dropping bags of groceries from Market Basket on porches across Chelsea. Then Avellaneda volunteered his coffee shop, Pan Y Café, as a distribution center.
Then it was off to the Collaborative on Broadway when they outgrew that.
Now, they are at Sixth Street in a traditional warehouse/industrial building, and hoping to find a somewhat permanent home for an effort that started out of the hatchback of an SUV.
“We’re so fortunate,” said Vega. “We’ve always had something to give away. We had our scary moment when we almost didn’t have any food to give, but someone always came through.”