It's a recent Tuesday in Chelsea — a warm, sunny afternoon, of the kind that, in pre-COVID times, would see the city's tiny downtown brimming with activity.

These days, the streets are a lot emptier, but this afternoon is an exception.

There’s a line of people, stretching down Broadway and around the block — and around the next block, and the next and the next.

There are hundreds of people in line — on some days, it's been well over a thousand — all there for one thing: food.

Chelsea, a city of just over 40,000, was and remains among the hardest hit communities in the commonwealth, both in terms of infections and deaths from COVID-19, and in the economic impact upon residents.

Recent unemployment figures collected by the Pioneer Institute, a public policy group, estimate the city’s unemployment rate at 26 percent. But local activists told WGBH News the rate is probably much higher, as those statistics are likely missing a significant population of undocumented immigrants who are out of work but ineligible for unemployment benefits and, in many cases, had been working under-the-table jobs.

Whatever the actual unemployment rate, there is no clearer sign of how tough times are for many Chelsea residents than this snaking line.

Even as COVID-19 cases begin to decline here, the small working class city remains at the forefront of a growing food insecurity crisis across the commonwealth.

Kenny, a young man who lives in Chelsea, is one of the hundreds standing in line, and not for the first time. (He declined to give his last name to protect his and his family’s privacy.

By three o’clock he has already been standing there, waiting outside, for almost an hour.

And it will be another two hours — not until five o’clock — before the line even begins to move.

“Everybody comes two to three hours early, and [the line] goes completely full around the block," Kenny said. "It has happened once or twice — two full blocks.”

Standing next to Kenny and waiting with him is a relative, Justin, who lives in the same household.

It’s an extraordinarily long time to wait, the young men acknowledge.

But the two will wait anyway, so they can each bring home a 35-pound box of food for their eight-person household.

“People don't have jobs at the moment, and it's really hard to get food,” said Justin. “And it's not just here. The lines are all over.”

In April, Gov. Charlie Baker deployed the national guard to distribute meals, thousands of boxes per day, to Chelsea residents.

Even then, it wasn't enough. WGBH News reported in April that the National Guard was running out of meals daily, leaving residents who had waited in line for hours empty-handed.

Baker ended the deployment in late May, as the state began its phased re-opening.

The governor has since announced a new statewide food assistance program, and the City of Chelsea recently approved funding for new pop-up food pantries.

But those programs are still just getting off the ground, and as Chelsea sees food lines reminiscent of the Great Depression, it's largely activists who have stepped up to tackle the problem.

Walking the line and shouting cheerfully through her face mask is Gladys Vega. Vega heads the the Chelsea Collaborative, the small noprofit that is running this entire operation out of its small office on Broadway.

The nonprofit advocates for vulnerable Chelsea residents and has many programs. But giving out free food, Vega said, didn't used to be one of them.

“We do civil rights work, we do policy at the state house, we support immigrant workers, we support tenants, we supported homeowners facing foreclosure during the financial crisis,” Vega said.

“But I didn’t expect to be in the food industry," she added. "I never expected our office would become a free supermarket for the community.”

But that's exactly what's happened.

The Chelsea Collaborative, including Vega herself and a team of staff and volunteers, has been handing out 3,000 to 4,000 35-pound boxes of food twice a week for over a month now.

And while Vega has support from the city’s elected leadership, the effort has so far been without official funding, support or sanction. It began months ago, on Vega’s front lawn.

Chelsea City Council president Roy Avellaneda, who has worked with Vega’s team as a volunteer, recalled the moment he became involved.

“She had called me, as the owner of a local coffee shop who had closed down, to see if I had anything, you know, and to help her,” find food donations, Avellaneda says.

“I dropped it off at her house thinking she was just helping a few families. And lo and behold, there she was in the front lawn, with boxes and boxes of food,” Avellaneda said. “So I looked at her and said, you're out of your mind.”

Avellaneda leaned on contacts in the restaurant industry. He rented a truck to haul pallets of food.

As Vega points out, what began as a public health crisis has become, especially here in Chelsea, a stark economic one that is disproportionately affecting undocumented immigrants who were already living on the margins.

“You have to understand that 80 percent of our workforce is service providers, so when the pandemic happened they basically were left without a job, without any savings, without any means,” Vega said.

“You have approximately 30,000 people who are unemployed, probably half them are not able to apply for public benefits so they have no income at all,” she added.

Vega says she hopes she'll be able to close up soon and get back to her advocacy work.

“But I would never change anything we've done, never,” Vega said. “And if we have to, if there’s another outbreak in the fall, we’ll do it again.”