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An underground food pantry in Boston draws needy families, and the city’s disapproval

Volunteers set up the food pantry in the parking lot of the Phineas Bates Elementary School.
Volunteers set up the food pantry in the parking lot of the Phineas Bates Elementary School.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

On a bright and freezing Friday afternoon, a stream of people arrived at the parking lot of an elementary school in Roslindale to visit an underground food pantry.

They rummaged through crates of carrots, potatoes, and eggplants, examining frozen meats and fresh eggs. Some slipped a dollar into a white donation bucket as they made their way among the cardboard boxes. Many had lost jobs and had families to feed over the holidays: They were planning to make pancakes, bake lasagna, roast chickens.

But the food distribution operation has become a battle between the volunteers who run it and Boston officials. The Roslindale site is just one of the many spontaneous mutual aid efforts that have sprung up to address soaring need in the city, some of which have operated in a legal gray area.

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Earlier this month, city officials said the operation did not meet health and safety standards and must shut down; organizers of the site said city officials were being callous and bureaucratic in the face of a food emergency. The city has since tried to make peace.

“This is a crisis. We should be giving support. If the city’s not going to, we have to do it by our own devices,” said Laura Cowie-Haskell, a volunteer at the site, which moved to the parking lot of the Phineas Bates Elementary School earlier this month.

In a statement to the Globe, city officials cited their concerns around food safety and storage, but said the city “stands ready to work with organizers of this operation to make sure the food being offered is safe for recipients, as we know how important it is to make this service accessible to those who need it.”

A group of volunteers in Roslindale in the spring teamed up with the Brookline Food Cooperative, which salvages groceries from Whole Foods and other stores, in order to provide food to neighbors who need it.

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A therapist in the neighborhood, Rachel Stanton, offered to host the distribution, and set up a fridge and deep freezer in her backyard. As she and other volunteers saw it, people were desperate, traditional food pantries were overwhelmed, and this was a small way to help the neighborhood.

And there was clearly a need: Soon more than 50 people were showing up every Friday afternoon to pick up groceries in her backyard. The whole thing was informal, meant to be particularly accessible to people who are undocumented. Visitors were encouraged to take as much as they wanted.

But in early December, the city ordered the volunteers to shut down the whole operation. After receiving complaints, Boston Inspectional Services Department said the group appeared to be running a food pantry without a permit. The city had public safety concerns about how the food was being stored and whether perishable items were being kept at the proper temperature.

“Property is being used as an illegal food pantry,” said an ISD violation notice from early December, which the Globe reviewed. A second notice that Stanton received indicated that if she continued to operate the site, she could face a $1,000 fine or a year in prison.

The volunteers then moved the food distribution to the parking lot of the Bates School; the city did not respond to questions from the Globe about whether the move put the site more in line with the health code.

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The Brookline Food Cooperative, which supplies most of the food, is run by Vicki Schnoes, 61, who lives in a shelter and spends her days driving to grocery stores around the state, picking up food that cannot be sold, often because it is bruised or the packaging is ripped. The Roslindale site is just one satellite, she said; she also operates other informal sites around Boston. She has run the Brookline Food Cooperative for 30 years, and believes the resistance, especially from neighbors who file complaints, has little to do with food safety.

“Neighbors didn’t like seeing strangers in the neighborhood, people of color in the neighborhood,” Schnoes said. “The ‘haves’ didn’t like seeing the ‘have-nots’ being able to have, is what it boiled down to.”

The city’s Inspectional Services Department told the Globe it had made “numerous attempts” to work with the site’s organizers and “visited this location several times in response to complaints about improperly stored food and food left out in the elements.”

“While we appreciate and support individuals and organizations’ efforts to help neighbors in need during this challenging year, we encourage everyone to ensure compliance with all applicable codes for the health and safety of everyone,” ISD said in a statement.

On a recent afternoon, shoppers said the relief effort was a lifeline.

“I’ve got three young kids. During this time right now, this little bit will help,” said Sophia Michel, who was visiting the parking lot with her 10-year-old daughter, Star, for the first time.

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Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Star has a knack for whipping up breakfast, and she planned to use challah from the site to make French toast from scratch — “if I let her go on the stove,” Michel said. The 38-year-old is out of work because she has to be home with her children, and so the family is only using the stove every other day in order to save money on electricity.

“I don’t think they should shut it down, because this is helping people that really, really need it,” said Sophia Long, 46, as she surveyed donated toys that were being distributed free of charge alongside the food.

Long had to stop working at a health center to take care of her three boys, she said, and was depending on the food distribution to get provisions for her family and for a friend. Both Long and Michel said they did not have other options for accessing food.

Stanton said she had asked city officials many times for help bringing the site up to code, but officials had been largely unhelpful, until this week when multiple officials reached out to discuss ways to move forward and she became a bit more optimistic.

“I’m just trying to see people get food,” she said. “People have a right to get food.”


Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.