Chelsea Eats serves around 2,000 families recruited largely from the city’s pantries, providing them with up to $ 400 a month on cards, depending on household size. Cards can be used anywhere Visa payments are accepted. The program is supported by municipal funds, state grants and philanthropic contributions.
“It’s a more effective way to deal with the problem of food insecurity,” Ambrosino said. He said the program had reduced the overhead costs of operations such as pantries, which require trucking, temporary workers and other “non-food” costs, only to force people to queue for food. things they don’t want or maybe don’t need.
On Monday, researchers from the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at the Harvard Kennedy School will publish an analysis out of 47,624 transactions with a total value of nearly $ 2.1 million. They found that about 73 percent of those purchases were made in places where food is the primary product, such as grocery stores, wholesale clubs, convenience stores, and restaurants.
Market basket supermarkets received 32% of total spending, according to the report, with most of those business going to the the chain’s Chelsea store.
The program moves away from traditional assistance efforts, which provide food directly to participants or allow them to purchase only those elements deemed eligible.
Chelsea Eats is one of the most ambitious American experiments with so-called guaranteed income programs. The city has been one of the hardest hit in the state by the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, which has cost many residents their jobs.
Chelsea has around 40,000 people living in 13,000 households, according to US Census data, which means the program penetrates deeper into the community than other such testing programs.
In Stockton, California., population 313,000, a similar program involving 125 people lasted for two years, starting in early 2019. Research found that participants were healthier, found better economic opportunities, and were more secure from financial instability than their peers who did not receive the $ 500 monthly payment.
Early results from Chelsea indicate the program is works as expected, according to Jeffrey Liebman, director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard.
Liebman, who is the lead author of the article analyzing buying habits, said preliminary results showed a surprising amount of money was left in and around Chelsea – in shops, restaurants and markets – indicating that the economic impact of the program could be greater than expected.
While some of the spending on restaurants went to big chains like McDonalds and Dunkin ‘, significant sums went to local restaurants. like Broadway House of Pizza and Taqueria El Charrito.
“What this program shows so far is that it is possible to implement a basic income program on a large scale, and when you do it helps people meet their basic needs. “said Liebman.
Jill Shah, president of the Shah Family Foundation, which is one of the main supporters of the initiative, said more programs like the one in Chelsea are needed.
“People are not earning enough to keep them with enough food, shelter and safety,” Shah said. “If we cannot assure every American that these three basic needs are met, then we are not doing our job as fellow Americans. “
The foundation and the city recently announced that the program, which was due to end this month, will run until June. Shah and Ambrosino said they hope to pursue him throughout the summer.
Even though the program appears to be helping, the need at Chelsea remains strong. Liebman said about 40 percent of people who applied to the program say they or their children sometimes don’t have enough to eat, up from 55 percent before Chelsea Eats started.
In a bi-weekly Salvation Army-run pantry on Chestnut Street, Captain Brenda Gonzalez said people needed food and other supplies, despite the Chelsea Eats program. On Thursday, volunteers were distributing turkey, fruits, vegetables, rice, sanitary products and other items.
Many people who requested cards were not selected to receive them. Payments were distributed by lot among 3,615 applicants. Others have needs that are beyond or outside of what the program provides.
For the participants, the extra money allowed them some financial flexibility. Several Chelsea Eats attendees – who were volunteering with the Salvation Army on Thursday said they used the money for food, but also cleaning supplies and clothing.
“The card was very useful because it covered so much that food stamps didn’t cover,” said Gloria Caballero, who lost her job in the restaurant industry more than a year ago. The mother of two opened up to the Globe in an interview performed by Gonzalez.
While the Harvard study did not determine exactly what people bought with their cards, it segmented purchases based on the type of retailer where transactions were made.
The results showed that 20 percent of the spending went to retailers who primarily sell non-food products. Four percent went to what the researchers called “professional services” – mostly utilities.
One percent went to travel and transportation. Less than half of 1 percent was spent at liquor stores or tobacco stores.
While the near-term outlook for Chelsea Eats remains bright, Ambrosino said he hopes this could give basic income programs a boost.
Ambrosino said broad acceptance of these programs, including federal support, will be essential. “Local government cannot do it alone,” he said.