Is Chelsea Eats nearing an end, or a beginning?
Backers say guaranteed income program needs state, federal backing
CHELSEA CITY MANAGER Tom Ambrosino started handing out cash to residents last year as a way to address hunger in his community, but now he thinks the program’s initial success indicates it’s time for the state and national governments to step up and take over.
The Chelsea Eats program was borne of frustration in the midst of the pandemic. Ambrosino said the city was running two food pantries, collecting and handing out food at a rapid pace. But it quickly became apparent that the cost, both in dollars and cents and staff time, was too much for his administration. He also felt the pantry system, forcing as many as 10,000 people a week to wait for hours in the midday heat for a box of food, was undignified.
“There had to be a more humane way to meet this need,” he said at a Zoom forum about guaranteed income programs on Thursday that was hosted by CommonWealth and sponsored by the Shah Family Foundation, the Cambridge Community Foundation, and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and the Merrimack Valley.
The participants were selected through a lottery; all they had to do to qualify was fill out a single-page form with 12 questions. No documentation was required.
According to an initial review of Chelsea Eats by Jeff Liebman of Harvard University’s Kennedy School, the program addressed a huge need in an effective way. Liebman said surveys of those participating in the program documented extreme financial hardship, health problems, and enormous hunger. “I have never seen a US population with this much food insecurity,” Liebman said. “It’s just off the charts food insecurity.”
Liebman also reviewed how Chelsea residents spent the money, and found that 73 percent of the $2.1 million spent between November 24 and March 2 was spent at stores primarily selling food (32 percent was spent at the Market Basket in Chelsea) and 21 percent at retail stores like Target and TJ Maxx.
Ambrosino said Chelsea Eats is now nearing its end. “Our goal is to get people through this emergency. So this is not intended, at least at the city level, to go on indefinitely. It is an extraordinarily expensive program [$700,000 a month] for local government. It’s not sustainable for local government,” he said.
Ambrosino said he believes food insecurity has always been a problem in Chelsea, but it took COVID-19 to expose just how bad it was. “It’s really a problem for a nation of our wealth, and I think it’s time that we as Americans do something about it,” he said.
The city manager said he believes Liebman’s final report on Chelsea Eats, due out at the end of the summer or early fall, will show that participants in the program spent the money wisely, that receiving free cash is not a disincentive to work, and that the funds improved the economic and mental health of municipal residents.
Bob Giannino, the president and CEO of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and the Merrimack Valley, which helped fund Chelsea Eats, said the program is laying the groundwork for future guaranteed income initiatives.
Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, who is launching a similar program with 120 residents of her city in August, said she believes these pilot projects are “changing the narrative about poverty.”
Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, California, couldn’t agree more. After winning election in 2016, Tubbs put together the funding for a guaranteed income pilot in his community that he said demonstrated the promise of an idea put forward decades ago by Martin Luther King Jr.In a rousing pre-recorded speech at the forum, Tubbs eloquently laid out the religious and philosophical underpinnings for his belief that “giving people money is the smartest thing we can do.” Tubbs, who was ousted by a Republican in 2020, said he sees Chelsea as a major stepping stone toward the day when poverty can be eradicated in Massachusetts.
“We are clearly in a moment where we are understanding that poverty is a choice and we can choose differently,” he said.