Everett native Vinny Vassallo, 32, left a desk job to become a food-rescue coordinator with Lovin’ Spoonfuls, which rescues excess food from grocery stores and distributes it to soup kitchens, food pantries, and charities throughout Massachusetts. He clocks 40 hours per week on the road, lugging 2,000 pounds of food each day onto and off of his truck. And now his job hits closer to home than ever: The organization just added a new route through Chelsea, East Boston, Everett, Lynn, and Revere — allowing them to bring much-needed food to communities that have been hard-hit by COVID-19.
What does a food-rescue coordinator do?
Basically we’re the ones on the ground at Lovin’ Spoonfuls, doing the food rescue work. Each day, I have a schedule that I follow. I drive a box truck to five or six grocery stores. I pick up their food that they would otherwise be getting rid of that’s perfectly fine for people to eat — so anything from bruised produce to milk and dairy that’s close to its sell-by date to grocery items that stores are no longer carrying — anything that they would be getting rid of that anyone would be perfectly happy to eat. We pick that up, and we deliver it same-day in refrigerated trucks to different beneficiaries throughout the Greater Boston area.
We have over 75 different stores and farms that we pick up from. . . . Whole Foods, Wegmans, Targets, Roche Bros. Those are the big ones.
In terms of places we deliver it to, we don’t have any requirement from them other than they need the food, and they’re distributing it to their community in some form or fashion. So it could be a food pantry, it could be a soup kitchen, but it also could be an after-school program. It could be a veterans’ home. It could be a halfway house. Any place that can use the food in their programming. Whether they’re just distributing the food directly to their clients or whether they’re cooking it there onsite, that way they save money on food costs, and they can use their money for other resources.
Take me through a typical day as a driver.
So a typical day would have me picking up food at Costco and Target in Everett, from Baldor in Chelsea, from Target in Revere and Price Rite in Revere, Price Rite in Lynn, and Big Y in Saugus. And then, once I perform all those pickups, I have a truck full of food. That’s when I start doing my distributions throughout the same area. So I go to a whole number of beneficiaries throughout the area, but that includes My Brother’s Table in Lynn, St. Stephen’s food pantry in Lynn, Salvation Army in Chelsea, SELAH Community Day Resource Center in Chelsea, Everett Grace food pantry.
My Monday through Friday is the same every week. Every place that we deliver food to, they know exactly when we’re coming. They have a rough idea of how much food they’re going to get. Having that regular delivery to them, them knowing what day, what time, and roughly what we have onboard, allows them to plan for us. And with so much unknown happening right now, having that regular planned delivery is really helpful for them.
Can you talk a little bit about the importance of your work and the meaning you derive from it within the framework of COVID-19? What are you seeing firsthand?
We’re seeing the demand [at food pantries and soup kitchens] really dramatically increase. There are places that I had gone to pre-pandemic that were maybe giving out food to 25 families a day, and their need has increased, some of them, to 100 a day. We’re seeing some places increase their need by 400 percent.
The thing that really makes me feel good is that these places that are seeing this dramatic increase are responding to it and not backing down from it. They’re throwing themselves into all of this extra work that they had never done before to get food to all of these people who need it. As opposed to just turning people away, places are welcoming as many more people as they can. We’re seeing places that had address restrictions before — if you were in Chelsea, only Chelsea residents could come — now they’re saying anyone who needs food right now, come in, we’ll do everything we possibly can to get it to you. So a lot of the work that we’re doing, we couldn’t possibly do if it wasn’t for all of these great organizations doing great work as well. They’re really stepping up their own work in the pandemic.
How did you get into the food-rescue business?
I got into this line of work the same way anyone would get another job; I applied for it. I had an office job before. I worked for ABACS, which is a company that provides ABA therapy to people on the autism spectrum. And it was a fine job, but I was just working 50, 60 hours in the office at a computer. I was just looking at numbers all day. I was not very satisfied. I wanted to take a job that I could do in my community and feel good about myself. I also wanted a job where I wasn’t just sitting down all day, where I was actually moving around. … When I saw the application, the job had everything I wanted. I get to work in my community. I get to do something good. I get to be active, and I get to talk to people. So I applied for it. I got it. And I couldn’t be happier.
And now you drive through your old neighborhood. How have those communities changed over the years?
My whole family’s from Everett. We’re a third-generation Italian family. … When you grow up in a big Italian family, you grow up with your plate full all the time. You grow up with more food than you know what to do with, but I also grew up with friends who didn’t have that same luxury, and I would see it all the time. So, doing this work, redistributing food throughout the community that I’m from really has been the most meaningful, impactful thing for me. And I’m from Everett, but I’ve spent my life in all of these other towns that I’m servicing. I’ve spent so many days in Chelsea and Revere and Lynn, and a lot of the neighborhoods have changed.
A lot of these towns have historically been tough to live in, Everett being one of them. Chelsea, Lynn being one of them. And those really haven’t changed since I was growing up. I think that having food and not thinking about where your next meal comes from really can take the stress off of a family, off of a person. And I think that can lead to a thriving community.
What makes your job personally meaningful?
We have a brand new beneficiary in Chelsea, a brand-new pantry. They have been doing extra work based on the pandemic. They don’t have a regular delivery of food. Their pantry manager has to drive all over the city on Mondays to try to find different places to try to get food in her own car, in her personal vehicle. And it’s just a car. She’s driving all outside of Chelsea, she’s driving to Somerville, she’s driving into the city, she’s packing whatever she can into her car, dropping it off in Chelsea, going back out on the road again.
And we’re able to give her about 1,000 pounds of food a day, just delivering it right to her door. Her name is Elaine, and every time she comes out, it’s just the best feeling seeing her, her telling us how this has saved them so much. She can put her energy into actually running the pantry. She doesn’t have to put it into hunting down food and asking people for food. And she doesn’t have to wake up early in the morning and find a new resource. And the other day she told me that the band the Lovin’ Spoonful has a song, ‘Do You Believe in Magic?’ She said she doesn’t believe in magic, but she believes in miracles, and she thinks that the food that we’re giving her is an absolute miracle.
Any food recommendations in Everett? You come from a big Italian family. Where do you like to eat?
I am an absolutely no-frills type of eating-out person. So when it comes to eating in Everett, me and my partner, we go to Mike’s Roast Beef. I get a super beef three-way every time.
What do you listen to while you drive?
Well, I listen to podcasts and I listen to music. For podcasts right now, especially right now, I’ve been listening to the Ringer NBA Show, especially throughout everything that’s been happening with the NBA, trying to get different insights into the NBA restart because I’m a huge Celtics fan. But also since the boycott of the games, I’m trying to get different insights into that. When I’m listening to music, my favorite band is Devo. Usually, at least once a week, I’m listening to Devo.