Speaking with WGBH News just a few weeks ago, Chelsea community organizer and activist Gladys Vega said she feared the small city was on the brink of disaster.
For one thing, she thought coronavirus was more prevalent — likely, far more prevalent — than officials understood or acknowledged. At the time, there had been just over one hundred confirmed infections in the city.
But, Vega noted, few people she talked to had been tested or knew how to get tested.
“That means we probably have double that [number],” Vega said. “If not, we’ll have it very soon, by the end of the week.”
Now, just a few weeks later, there are roughly one thousand known COVID-19 infections in Chelsea alone — something like one known infection for every 40 to 50 residents.
But Vega had also been sadly prescient about another problem facing the city: food.
Vega, a woman who seemed to know virtually everyone in the city, said she was hearing every day from residents, many who had lost jobs in the crisis, who were desperate to find food to feed their families.
“My God, you wouldn’t believe, I probably get 15 to 20 calls a day from people who need food,” Vega said.
Vega was calling anyone she knew who might have extra food, and was now running a DIY food pantry on her front lawn.
“If you see my porch right now, I probably have 70 boxes of soup and macaroni and cheese,” Vega said. “And at 4 or 5 o’clock I’m going to call my neighbors and stuff and say, ‘Hey come pick up whatever you can.’”
It wouldn’t be nearly enough, she said. And she was right about that, too.
Outside Chelsea’s Wilson Middle School, Maria Davis has spent every day behind a small plastic table just inside the school entrance, handing out meals to a steady stream of residents.
Davis, the school’s nutrition director, normally runs the cafeteria. Now, she and her tiny team convene at 6 a.m. every day to bag meals for residents. They hand out as many as 500 a day, greeting residents with warm words and only one question: “How many?” or “Cuanto?”
“I think the need is great — this is a community that is in a situation where many of them are not working and I think the food program is something they’re relying on,” Davis said.
“So I think the community is pulling together to do what they can.”
The community, though, can only do so much.
A week ago, Gov. Charlie Baker ordered the National Guard to deploy in Chelsea, specifically to hand out meals. The guard is now doing that, five days a week, at two locations.
But City Manager Thomas Ambrosino said it’s still not enough food.
“Right now, we’re generally distributing about 250, 300 boxes of food at each location. A box of food is 30 pounds of food intended to feed a family of two for about a week,” Ambrosino told WGBH News.
“But at each of these distribution sites, we’re turning away people, the boxes are gone,” Ambrosino added. “We’re asking people to be patient. … But we’re not meeting the needs of the residents yet.”
Gov. Baker, in a press conference last week, said that if Chelsea needs more resources, all the city has to do is ask.
Ambrosino is asking. He’s urging the state to help increase food distribution to perhaps 500 boxes a day at each site, or roughly double the current rations, to open six days a week and to begin delivering food to people who can’t or shouldn’t leave their homes.
The surge in hunger, Ambrosino said, reflects the reality that many of Chelsea’s residents were already living on the margins — the city is the seventh-poorest in the commonwealth — and that’s especially true for a significant population of undocumented immigrants.
“These are people who work very hard but barely get by in a normal economy," he said. "Those day labor jobs, those house cleaning jobs, those construction jobs have disappeared.
“Now we have lots of family units where there’s literally zero income coming in. And these aren’t people who have the luxury of having two three weeks of food stocked up in their apartment.”
And he pointed out other cities — like Springfield and Brockton — face similar challenges and are showing similar trends in infections and food insecurity.
Other advocates for Chelsea agreed that the city deserves extra help right now.
Roseann BonGiovanni is executive director of Greenroots Chelsea, an environmental justice advocacy group.
“We’ve had years of industrial pollution and contamination,” she said.
She noted that Chelsea is one of the densest cities in the region despite the fact that large swaths of the city are occupied by industrial sites, including fuel storage and loading facilities.
“So you’re adding industrial and public health burden on top of overcrowded housing,” BonGiovanni said. “We have some of the worst public health statistics in the state — asthma, cardio vascular illness, obesity, diabetes — you name it.”
Meanwhile, she said many Chelsea residents are out there now, working exactly the kinds of jobs that put them at greater risk for infection.
“They’re checking you out at the grocery store, they’re on buses, they’re at the airport, they’re in the essential jobs we rely on every day … so it seems like Chelsea and communities like Chelsea continue to risk their lives for the greater good,” BonGiovanni said. “So from my perspective, it feels like it’s long overdue that communities like Chelsea get the respect they deserve.”