By: Ryan Mancini
Over a year after the city of Chelsea gave 2,000 families $400 a month between 2020 and 2021, much of which was spent on groceries, city officials are planning a second round of payments beginning in January.
Chelsea Eats began at the suggestion of city manager Tom Ambrosino in 2020, The Boston Globe reported. Combining city and federal COVID-19 relief funds, along with a grant from the Shah Family Foundation, $4 million was put together to support families unable to receive federal assistance.
“We didn’t promote it as universal basic income,” he said to the Globe. “We promoted it as a solution to the problem.”
Between November 2020 and August 2021, and with $2 million added along the way, one-sixth of Chelsea’s population was using the Chelsea Eats program to support their families. Money was received with Visa debit cards, no strings attached, and reported by WGBH as the largest guaranteed income program in the country.
“But I think, very importantly to the residents of Chelsea, it’s putting money directly in the hands of people who need cash,” Shah Foundation president Jill Shah said to WGBH in October 2020.
“That cash will go directly into the local economy and at the same time, we’ll be studying it, which we think will inform policy. We’re going to have to have new policy to get us out of this crisis.”
At the time, over 60% of Chelsea residents were food insecure. Also, 60% were unemployed due to the pandemic, according to the nonprofit United Way. Through this guaranteed income program, United Way partnered with Harvard University’s Rappaport Institute to study its impact on families in need.
The first study from March 2021 found that most recipients were mostly female and Latino with a household of three to four people living together. Over 82% surveyed said they experienced economic hardship ahead of applying for Chelsea Eats.
Two months later, the program’s results were crystal clear. The second study, published in May 2021, specified that over 73% of spending “occurred at places where food is the primary product: grocery stores, wholesale clubs, markets & convenience stores, and restaurants.” Only 21% was used at big box stores like Target or Walmart or department stores like Burlington and TJ Maxx. Transportation accounted for just over 1% of spending.
“In our Chelsea Eats research surveys, we are collecting data on food consumption and expenditures and will be assessing the extent to which the program leads to greater food adequacy and reductions in food insecurity,” the study’s conclusion stated.
The Rappaport Institute published the experimental impacts of Chelsea Eats in December 2022. Researchers summarized that recipients “said they were better off financially, were less likely to report food insecurity, and reported no negative impact on their willingness to work.”
Promise provided by the studies and a documentary about Chelsea’s Latinx communities called “Raising the Floor” indicated the program’s success despite funds drying up. With over $800,000 in American Rescue Plan funds at hand, Ambrosino announced Tuesday that the second Chelsea Eats program would take place from January to March 2023.
Despite money going out to 650 families this time, Ambrosino told the Globe this was a result of asking the community how those federal funds should be spent. Launching the program in the first place prompted, as Ambrosino said, “deeper conversation about what is the local government’s role and what is the federal government’s role” in providing programs like Chelsea Eats with long-term support.