The one thing Dinanyili Paulino would like people to understand about the hunger crisis ravaging vulnerable communities is that standing in long lines at a food pantry waiting for a box filled with basic groceries shouldn’t be a degrading experience. She believes food lines can be empowering.
She should know. Paulino is the chief operating officer of La Colaborativa, the nonprofit formerly known as the Chelsea Collaborative. The organization has been leading the humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Chelsea, the early epicenter of the virus in the state. And La Colaborativa’s food pantry has become a cornerstone in this heavily Latino community for the past eight months.
“I have heard some critics say that long food lines bring shame to communities, that it’s not dignified,” said Paulino. “But that’s not our food line — ours is a lifeline. We have established a strong connection with the Chelsea community, and we want to keep that bond alive.”
That’s because La Colaborativa’s food pantry, led by women, is more than just food. “As they’re waiting in line, we ask people what they need. Sometimes that’s applying for SNAP benefits or rental assistance,” Paulino said. “But people tell us all of their issues: ‘My neighbor is sick, can you bring her food?’ Or, ‘My partner is being abusive, can you help me?’ ‘I don’t have money for rent.’ ‘I need a new mattress.’”
It’s a classic case of necessity being the mother of invention, where a nonprofit scaled up from having no food-assistance program to servicing 8,000 families a week. La Colaborativa has done it all while staying true to its core mission: to provide a broad range of services to immigrants. In an era where people can’t congregate or be together, the food line has indeed turned into a lifeline, one of very few chances to intervene and help people.
Gladys Vega, the group’s executive director, began small, in March, giving out donated fruit and bread from her porch for a couple of hours in the evening. But food scarcity became evident pretty quickly in Chelsea, a city of immigrant workers who are the engine that keeps Boston running. They are janitors, restaurant workers, and other service industry employees who have suffered — and continue to suffer — job and income losses in the pandemic.
Now the food pantry has grown into a well-oiled operation running daily, located in a 15,000-square-foot warehouse on Sixth Street, a space donated by The Neighborhood Developers, a local development group. “There were weeks in late March and April when we were serving up to 11,000 families on average,” Vega said. Last Thursday afternoon, the food line was two blocks deep. The food pantry also has a drive-through lane and home delivery of food boxes to the elderly.
La Colaborativa is not the only food-assistance program in the city. But Vega said that the key to their operation is their ability to be flexible and that they know the community. “We have even given detergent,” said Vega. “What people ask me, what people need, I get for them.” On Wednesdays, La Colaborativa hands out free diapers, formula, wipes, and feminine products. During the summer, they had a couple of employees work the food line to ask people to fill out census forms. Vega says that they prioritize making culturally competent food boxes with complete meals that include staples of Central American, Colombian, and other Latino kitchens, like rice, beans, plantains, and Maseca flour to make tortillas and pupusas.
La Colaborativa has helped people like Gladys Socop, an immigrant from Guatemala and a single mother of two who lost her job due to the pandemic economy. She didn’t have money to buy food or pay her rent. The food pantry not only helped feed her family, but the female leaders of the nonprofit also gave her rent-assistance money and helped her find a job as a painter. Graciela Galdamez, a single mother of three young boys, originally from Honduras, has been going to the food pantry twice a week for the past few months. “I haven’t had to buy a single diaper or baby wipes since March,” Galdamez said.
Vega estimates that La Colaborativa has spent $1.2 million so far on the food pantry alone, which includes monetary support from the City of Chelsea, the Barr Foundation, and others, as well as food donations from DiSilva Fruit, Kayem Meats, and the Greater Boston Food Bank, among others.
Ultimately, La Colaborativa’s food pantry is providing a valuable template: a handful of women making a profound difference to a community under duress. And in the process, they’re at once destigmatizing need and providing a fuller plate of services through their food line.