Friday, July 12, 2024

Nancy Travers, left, and Paula Barbosa, have a Fresh Meals program lunch at Millers River Apartments on Monday. (Photo: Sue Reinert)

The Cambridge Housing Authority installed an unusual amenity in its four largest developments for elders and disabled people when it modernized those buildings starting in 2013: commercial kitchens. Those four shiny kitchens remained unused for the most part – until now, when residents are getting daily meals cooked or reheated onsite, along with an affordable place to live.

Last month the authority’s Fresh Meals program began serving lunch at Millers River in East Cambridge, LBJ Apartments in Cambridgeport, and Burns Apartments in North Cambridge, as well as breakfast at the Manning Apartments in Central Square, from Monday through Friday. CHA is partnering with a Malden company, Stock Pot Malden, that operates two other commercial kitchens in that community for budding food business entrepreneurs who need a place to cook and help establishing companies.

One of those entrepreneurs, Edwin Rivera-Cosme, is the executive chef for the CHA program. On a recent Monday he stood behind a long table in the community room at Millers River, handing out Italian sandwiches, Greek salad and chicken broccoli Alfredo pasta to a line of residents. An assistant, Jacob Pineda, helped. Rivera-Cosme had prepared the food in the commercial kitchen at Millers River; it would be delivered in hotel serving pans to the other two lunch sites, Burns and LBJ.

“It’s wonderful,” said resident Nancy Travers, who had the pasta. “These people are doing a hell of a good job,” said her friend, Paula Barbosa. Travers said some residents run out of money to buy food at the end of the month. “It doesn’t look like much, but it’s helping,” she said.

The commercial kitchen at Millers River. (Photo: Sue Reinert)

Their only complaint: too much chicken. Day after day, chicken is on the menu, Travers and Barbosa said, though residents who observe Lent have fish on Fridays this month. “I have a cookbook – ‘365 Ways to Cook Chicken,’” Travers joked. She and Barbosa said they knew that the dependence on chicken is “a budget thing.” Allyah Landestoy, a CHA project manager who shepherded and now oversees the Fresh Meals program, agreed.

Residents in senior and disabled CHA developments may already get food under programs such as the Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services’ meals on wheels or grocery deliveries from local food pantries. But the food comes to their apartment rather than a community room, where they can eat with others.

Travers said she welcomed the social aspect of Fresh Meals, interrupting an interview several times to wave and greet other residents and once alerting a friend who loves Greek salads: “Maria! Greek salad!” Maria responded with a thumbs-up.

Still, many on the Millers River meals line got their portion in a container and took it away. There were only about a dozen people eating in the community room, and overall numbers in February were modest: 885 lunches and 111 breakfasts, Landestoy said.

CHA’s contract with Stock Pot Malden promises to cut the authority’s costs for the program after the first year – and the first year is covered by $750,000 from the City of Cambridge in American Rescue Plan Act funds, federal money meant to offset the impacts of the pandemic. “The pandemic was especially hard for at-risk populations like seniors and people with disabilities, leading to food insecurity and an increase in isolation in this group,” CHA said in a memo on the program.

To reduce costs to the authority, the agreement with Stock Pot Malden gives the Malden company – in this case the Stock Pot chef Rivera-Cosme – use of the Millers River kitchen outside of CHA meals so Rivera-Cosme can sell food to his own customers such as day care centers.

Working for Somerville chefs

Edwin Rivera-Cosme, right, and assistant Jacob Pineda serve Monday at Millers River. (Photo: Sue Reinert)

Stock Pot’s earnings from outside sales will offset the cost of the CHA program; for example, overhead costs such as Rivera-Cosme’s salary comes from the outside sales after this year, according to a memo on the contract presented to CHA commissioners Nov. 28 before they approved the agreement. Rivera-Cosme said Monday that his catering and food delivery company, The Freakin’ Puerto Ricans Fusion Food, based in Somerville, already has two day care customers in Brockton and Mattapan and “a food truck in the works.” State red tape prevented him from operating a food truck previously, he said.

“Our goal is to get child care, schools, elderly homes,” he said. The “fusion” label, he said, is because “I don’t want it to be boring. I’ve worked at so many places, I started mixing things.”

Residents are asked to pay $2 for a meal, although they won’t be turned away if they don’t; staff members can also get meals at the sites for $4. CHA will pay the difference between the cost of meals and the revenues.

The company behind the program

Stock Pot was established in 2014 as a for-profit company with a social mission: Provide affordable meals to “economically disadvantaged” children, older people and families; help nonwhite and ethnically and culturally diverse entrepreneurs to provide meals and start their own business; and improve Malden’s economy. The company is owned by a “social angel impact fund” called Co-Creation Ventures that wanted to support a local shared kitchen to demonstrate the power of helping a “local community of under-resourced food startups” to improve the quality of food given to “underserved” community entities such as schools, seniors and families, Stock Pot says on its website.

Stock Pot Malden has two commercial kitchens in Malden where it rents spaces at below-market rent to its target of diverse food startups. It also offers a two-year incubator program in which it guarantees income to selected entrepreneurs who can use the company’s kitchens for their own business and agree to provide meals to Stock Pot’s school and senior center customers. The company says it and partners served 3 million meals during the pandemic.

The housing authority hopes to expand its onsite meals program to other senior and disabled developments that do not have commercial kitchens, as well as family developments, Landestoy said.