EIGHT VIGNETTES FROM A CHELSEA KIDS FREE FOOD PROGRAM

CHELSEA KIDS FREE FOOD PROGRAM

Because we had capacity in our kitchen following the demise of some of our food entrepreneurs in the pandemic, we started supplying prepared meals to Chelsea kids through a program developed with the help of the Shah Foundation, the Boston YMCA, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the USDA. Today, we deliver breakfast and lunch to 1,200 Chelsea kids seven days a week.

What follows are snapshots in the life of this program.

AN ANXIOUS GAZE

Daniel is a young Salvadoran cook who has been laid off twice in the last three months. One of the companies participating in the Chelsea program, Farm Girl, has hired him as a sous-chef, but he also participates in the delivery of our meals to Chelsea residents. I am driving the delivery truck. As we approach the Salvation Army where our food gets distributed, he turns to me and asks, fear in his eyes: “Will this program continue at the end of the summer?” I don’t know the answer. Later, the program gets extended by two weeks. I run into him in the kitchen and he smiles at me, relieved to know the cliff has been pushed back. There are no small victories when you live day-to-day.

A COMMON BOND

Daniel is handing out the food from our truck. He spots a friend of his, a young lady in the long line of moms and dads waiting for food, often with children in tow. She’s also Salvadoran. They start talking as soon as the young woman comes within earshot. He cannot stop working because the line moves fast, and he needs to keep handing out the boxes. My Spanish is virtually non-existent, but I can sense his pride in serving the food and her gratitude in receiving it. There is not much that separates the people who work in our kitchen from the people who collect the food we hand out.

TRIUMPHANT RETURN

Nelson is an older Uruguayan gentleman who used to volunteer at the Chelsea Salvation Army while looking for a job. His energy had caught the attention of the lead chef of our Chelsea program, Lorena. As our program was growing, she decided to hire him. Nelson is now a paid employee of Farm Girl who prepares the food in the kitchen and participates in the delivery. The first time he returned to Chelsea, he was immediately mobbed by an affectionate crowd of volunteers wanting to know all about him and his new job. Later, I apologize to the head of the Chelsea Salvation Army, Captain Gonzales, for stealing one of his volunteers. “Quite the opposite”, he tells me. “getting our people back into a job is the best thing that can happen to them.”

ALL IN THE FAMILY

Lorena is orchestrating the ballet of employees preparing meals in the kitchen. Her mom is at the hot line cooking day-in, day-out. Lorena’s daughter is assembling breakfast groceries. We originally conceived of Stock Pot Malden as a local employment platform and I silently enjoy watching three generations work together in our kitchen for the first time. Last weekend, Lorena’s dad visits our kitchen. She has scrubbed the walls as if it were her own kitchen, but the paint in our bathrooms and hallway is worn out and fading. Her dad has some experience as a landscaper and painter. “If you buy the paint, I will do the job for free”, he offers. We happily sign him up.

PROTEINS FOR CARDBOARD

The reimbursement rate from the USDA is not overly generous and we struggle to break even. Because we deliver meals for 3 or 4 days at a time, we need to buy expensive cardboard boxes. One day, Captain Gonzales from the Salvation Army and I discuss that we would love to spend a bit more on ingredients and a bit less on packaging.  A bit later, and on two occasions, a Salvation Army truck miraculously drops several pallets of free cardboard boxes in our kitchen, relieving some of the cost pressure on our program. Next round of meals includes more expensive spicy turkey balls and hummus. The kids love it. Our controller a bit less so.

FREE FOOD MARKETING

The program has been steadily growing. We are at capacity at the Salvation Army because we serve 800 kids twice a week and cannot load any more boxes onto our trucks. Also, the line is quite long, and the car traffic occasionally clogs the center of town. Our partners at the Shah Foundation, Eliza and Michael, call to let us know they have partnered with Temple Emmanuel to become our second distribution point. On the first day of distribution, we park the truck on the quieter side of the synagogue and have very few takers. Our two partners at the Temple, Marsha and Herb, join us in moving to the end of the street on the busy Cary Square and we start brandishing signs advertising the program. Over a period of two weeks, people start coming and we now serve 400 kids at the Temple. The most touching? There is a bus stop nearby and some people come on the bus to collect the food, awkwardly climbing back on the next one, carrying multiple boxes for their kids. The bus driver waves at us appreciatively. We are all in this together.

GET OFF THE STROLLER

The meal boxes are bulky. While we pack them in single and double boxes, a mother of five has to carry three of those boxes. Some parents come equipped with rolling grocery carts, but others have their children with them. A common scene is to see the parent ask the kid to get out of the stroller if they can walk and replace them with the meal boxes. Some kids know the routine and accept it. Others start protesting or crying, leading to a motherly harangue on the value of trading short-term comfort for food to eat. I think of Maslow’s hierarchy …

SCHINDLER’S LIST

An iconic scene in Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s list is Liam Neeson regretting toward the end of the movie that he was not able to save more Jews from Nazi concentration camps, given the magnitude of the holocaust. It would be quite pretentious for us to identify with Oskar Schindler, the depth of distress he alleviated and the risk he personally took during the war, but the Chelsea kids’ program also generates this feeling of never being able to do enough. We serve 1,200 of them (coincidentally, Schindler saved 1,200 people in his factory), but there are 6,000 school-age kids in Chelsea and 60-80% of them are thought to be food-insecure. We shall not rest …

OPEN LETTER TO OUR BUSINESS NEIGHBORS

Being a Covid-19-vulnerable, past-his-prime human specimen, I come to our Stock Pot Malden kitchen in late evening when everybody is gone. The landscape there is eerie.  For the first time in many years, there is empty shelf space as some of our member companies have bitten the dust. The kitchen is immaculate and I find myself desperately looking for incriminating vegetable remnants hiding under prep tables. The whirring sound of fans whizzing under the hood has now replaced the clanking of pots and pans, the cacophony of languages and the blend of heavy metal music and Latino pop that made our kitchen sing and dance. I feel like the last man on earth.

This is of course not true. There is still some kitchen activity in the daytime, as the most resilient of our food entrepreneurs and our staff continue to produce food for home delivery or charity programs. The live interaction with them is gone, though. No more twinkle-in-the-eye showing of a new dish or excitement about a new sales record on a sunny spring day in Cambridge or Boston. Just the dry electronic exchange of documents to help our members apply for PPP programs or discussion of rent reductions and credit terms to help them survive. They also feel alone.

We are surrounded by midsized or large food companies in Malden, Everett and Chelsea. I imagine these companies are also full of lonely people. I dream of meeting them and developing schemes of what we should do together. I envision a creative business community, part Alcoholics Anonymous and part think tank. Together, we should be able to solve the disturbing paradox of having lots of unused kitchen capacity while many people around us are hungry. We might even create out of necessity an innovative supply chain model that serves as prototype for the post-pandemic era. Could local business communities prove to be the best economic response to the disruption of global supply chains?

Starting with Malden proper, Piantedosi Baking Company has two large plants a stone throwaway from our kitchen. Our member companies frequently buy their bread, yet we have never met any of their managers. Could we help them brand their products by associating them with the culinary high-end image of some of our members (“Piantedosi inside”)?

We have had a brief relationship with Dom’s Sausage, a wonderful butcher, meal provider and distributor at whose store our staff often gets their lunches. We housed their catering business briefly while their kitchen was being rebuilt, but we have never met again since then. I dream of some of our member companies running Dom’s food trucks that would feature the juicy meats and abundant sides they specialize in, feeding policemen and construction workers in all kinds of Boston working class neighborhoods the way they do in Malden.

New England Coffee is another Malden midsized business that is trying to establish its brand of coffee in a world dominated by grocery store brands or café-driven brands such as Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. I dream of several of our food trucks promoting New England Coffee downtown Boston and alerting their professional customers to the existence of this indigenous Malden brand of coffee.

Going beyond Malden, the city of Everett – about ten minutes way — houses a Restaurant Depot where many of our members go every day for their supplies. We’ve never managed to connect with anybody there. I dream of establishing a service where we would buy in bulk for our suppliers and organize runners that would reduce the overcrowding of their parking lot and store.

Everett is also the home of the new Encore Boston Harbor casino. Under pressure from politicians, the management of Encore valiantly committed to develop a relationship with local businesses such as Stock Pot Malden, but our attempts failed when their big company approach proved incompatible with the reality of small businesses such as ours. For example, Encore’s insurance broker required obtaining $20 MM of coverage to become a caterer to their construction site when the maximum available liability insurance for a food truck is $2 million. I dream of helping Encore people establish their Boston bona fides, for example by supporting a program that would deliver free meals to the city of Chelsea during the dramatic Covid-19 crisis and create goodwill with the local population they seek to attract when reopening.

Speaking of Chelsea, the city is located fifteen minutes away from us and is the home of one of the best local produce distributors in New England: Baldor. Baldor delivers to several of our members at Stock Pot Malden, but we have not yet managed to establish a more generative relationship with them. I dream of building a local supply chain with Baldor that would aggregate local farm produce and allow the displacement of some “Big-Ag-Big Food” in Boston and its replacement with local produce.

Chelsea is also home to the New England Produce Center, a giant warehouse and fleet hub that receives produce from all over the world and dispatches it to retail places in the Northeast. They supply some of Stock Pot Malden’s members, yet we have not been able to construct any relationship with them. I dream of helping them create a more efficient market with greater transparency of supply chain and measurement of produce quality, perhaps with the help of technology.

And the list goes on.Let us not waste this pandemic. It provides the proverbial burning platform for the reinvention of a new local supply chain. Food businesses of the North Shore, let us unite as a community and invent new ways to work with each other. Let us solve the dramatic challenge this public health crisis has unleashed upon us. At the minimum, we should all feel less lonely.

The girl from Brazil

I have always liked Brazilians. They are a resilient bunch. They can go through devastating cycles of poverty, corruption and dictatorship, yet figure out how to survive through imagination. They are like their national soccer team, individually brilliant, but sometimes organizationally self-destructive.

Lorena is a young Brazilian woman who runs a business called Farm Girl in our shared kitchen at Stock Pot Malden.  I remember meeting her the first time when she walked into our door without the required appointment, a baby in her arms. 

“I have put all my savings into a food truck”, she said, “and I am told I need a commissary. Would you take me?”

We were full and had a long waiting list, but she had a disarming smile, so we agreed to give her a tour if she came back without her baby. She pointed to an older gentleman who was with her – it turned out to be her husband – and put the baby in his arms. “Could we go now?” I knew any resistance would be futile. A few days later, we signed a contract.

Before she even moved in, there was a small incident where her husband expressed strong dissatisfaction in inappropriate language to a member of our team. I reminded her we had done her a favor and were not going to be friends long if this was a sign of times to come.

“We Brazilians have a big mouth, but we mean well”, she said, handing us a bag of pãn de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread). We decided she was OK. We are not beyond food venality.

Food truck life can be tough. The city of Boston has a lottery system that penalizes rookie trucks, so Lorena had to feed off scraps her first year. She developed a following in Somerville but encountered hostility from local merchants and trucks. I remember receiving ominous phone calls asking us for the personal address of the owner of the Farm Girl truck. When I passed that on to Lorena, she looked at me unfazed, as if to say: “I’ve seen worse in my life”.

She’s constantly creating new foods and reinventing her business model. Her anchor heritage is of course Brazilian –she credits her grandmother for the awakening of her palate as a child — but she’s also a student of Latin American flavors and can take you by the hand on a culinary exploration of empanada variations in various Latino cultures. She started out as a food truck but has since parlayed her craft into working as a much in-demand caterer to various corporate food brokers in Boston. She’s constantly making up new dishes and nothing is more fun for me than running into her at the end of the day, as she is developing new recipes. I’m never sure whether the greatest fun lies in tasting her food or listening to her talk about it.

But Lorena can be hard to help. Like many culinary creative people, she is not terribly interested in the business side of her operation. Her web site is hard to find and confusing. She has a hard time figuring out which channels and customers are profitable for her. She attracts new opportunities which she does not take the time to explore: potential partners would like her to give cooking lessons, others are offering to partner with her in opening up take-out pods in the city. Several of us think she has franchise potential.

What stands in the way? Lorena is of course extremely busy, as a young mother with a baby running a food business. This is overwhelming in itself. But something more seems to be at play. Lorena is a survivor and has learned not to trust anybody. Several people have offered to help for free with her accounting or finance, her business strategy or even food preparation. Her gaze becomes instantly suspicious and you rapidly understand this is not in the cards. When you’re a young immigrant woman fighting in the macho world of food, you can’t take the risk of relying on others. 

Overcoming the survivor syndrome is something our incubator has not yet figured out. We hope to get there someday.