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Veggies, Not Art: The ICA's Watershed Becomes A Fresh Food Hub For East Boston03:43
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Staff from the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center unload food at the ICA's Watershed, which is being used as a distribution site during the pandemic. (Courtesy ICA/Boston)
Staff from the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center unload food at the ICA's Watershed, which is being used as a distribution site during the pandemic. (Courtesy ICA/Boston)

Getting fresh food to struggling families quarantined in dense, urban neighborhoods has been a major challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in communities with large immigrant populations. East Boston is one of them, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, which has a satellite location there, is trying to help.

“East Boston has been hit pretty hard,” Kathy Field said.  As director of health promotion and service programs at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center she sees the effects first-hand every day .

The center is one of the largest community health providers in the country with more than 70,000 patients. It has a 24-hour emergency room, is running drive-through testing at Suffolk Downs, and also opened a test site in one of its buildings.  Field said 90% of her patients are Spanish-speaking and right now they're really scared.

“Many have become unemployed, many are service workers in restaurants, and a lot of our families don't have really options for federal benefits,” she explained, because many of them are in mixed-status immigrant families.

Field said about 75 people call the health center each day looking for resources, especially food. She's been working with the Red Cross to distribute shelf-stable dried and canned goods to homebound families with members who are COVID-19-positive, have been exposed or who are at risk because they have chronic illness. However, Field said, the health center felt it was critical to provide residents with ingredients for a more well-rounded, nutritious diet.

“For somebody who is in quarantine and not able to leave their home, we really had this barrier of connecting them to fresh food,” she recalled, “and that is what the ICA was really able to help us do.”

The ICA sits right across the harbor from East Boston. Two years ago it debuted a contemporary art outpost known as the Watershed, not far from the health center. The seasonal space would have been readying to reopen in May with a massive, newly commissioned sculpture by artist Firelei Baez, but like all of Boston's museums the ICA is temporarily closed because of the pandemic.

Instead, the Watershed has been transformed into a temporary, fresh produce distribution hub for the residents of East Boston.

“What's just incredible – and no news here – is everyone is just stepping up,” ICA director Jill Medvedow said via a Zoom interview. The “everyone” she referred to includes her staff, the museum's caterer and donors.

Looking back to when the coronavirus began to spread, Medvedow recalled how the museum's director of public engagement Kelly Gifford and education director Monica Garza contacted six community organizations they've partnered with in the past. The East Boston Neighborhood Health Center is one of them. Gifford and Garza asked how the ICA could help and learned about the dire need for fresh food. Then they called the museum's catering company which had lost all of its scheduled work for March, April and May because of the pandemic. Holly Safford, president of the Catered Affair, jumped at the chance to pitch in.

“We have always been a company that takes pride in giving back to the community,” she wrote in an email. “Our industry, hospitality, has been hit very hard by this crisis. Many from the immigrant community, some of them we presume undocumented, work long and hard hours often for low wages for their efforts.”

Like food service operators across the nation, Safford's company is struggling. She's had to furlough 350 full-time staff members.

Without events, Safford's team has pivoted to create some home meal delivery options hoping to generate revenue. Still, she eagerly offered to source fresh food along with donating space and labor to assemble boxes for hungry East Boston residents.

“The Catered Affair has large commissary space, a fleet of refrigerated trucks, big hearts and empty hands,” Safford said, “and we feel great to have this opportunity to put our resources to work to do something for our neighbors in need.”

To keep everyone safe, a skeleton crew of just five people are doing the work. Safford said the first delivery last Thursday, “went like clockwork,” and there's even been talk of finding additional funding to expand the plan.

Field described how Safford's team drove the fresh food over to the ICA Watershed where they unloaded it into her truck. Then the goods were delivered promptly to families. Four hundred households will receive bags filled with fruits, veggies, eggs, milk and butter over the next month or so.

This isn't the first time the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center – or the six other organizations partnering in this effort – have collaborated with the ICA. Since the Watershed debuted in 2018 the museum has opened its space to the community for all kinds of events, including a physical activity programs this winter with Field's health center.

For Medvedow it was important to find a way for the museum to support its neighbors who are on the frontlines of this devastating public health crisis.

“The ICA, like every other cultural institution or nonprofit, is facing severe economic impact from this closure,” she said, “But this was something we felt we could do – to be a resource to this community – in many of the same ways we hope the Watershed is when it's full of art.”

Even so, Medvedow said the 400 boxes of fresh food feel like a drop in the bucket. Field definitely doesn't see it that way.

“Sometimes people think that what they're contributing is really small,” she said, “but I think that for the people who are on the receiving end, it seems huge.”

This segment aired on April 21, 2020.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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