By Elena Eberwein
When Sandra Niijar, founder of East Boston Community Soup Kitchen, saw a homeless man clutching his stomach with hunger pangs on the street in East Boston, she had to act.
“This is a country where people, like me, come looking for a better future because it’s the country that everything is possible,” said Nijjar, who immigrated to Boston from El Salvador. “To see an American young man suffering from hunger. That’s such a basic thing, right?”
NIjjar opened the doors at East Boston Community Soup Kitchen nearly six years ago. The soup kitchen’s mission is to bring community members together to enjoy a hot meal, shelter, and a social atmosphere without any judgment. Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church at 28 Paris St., allows the organization to use the shared space every Monday and Tuesday. Since the pandemic began, the soup kitchen has functioned as a food distribution site on Tuesday mornings to continue serving clients.
Nijjar says she comes from a family of natural healers. She watched her grandparents offer natural remedies and holistic services to their community in El Salvador as she grew up. “My grandmother, she knew what herb or what leaf was good for feeling anything in your body,” said Nijjar.
When her grandparents were offered money for their services, Nijjar says they always rejected it. “But when people will give them food, like a bag of lemons or bananas, they always took that. They said it was a sin to reject food.” The idea for the soup kitchen blossomed from her family philosophy.
On top of hot meals and good company, the soup kitchen brings in social services to connect people with resources like food stamps, housing, detox programs, healthcare, and even free haircuts. Every Tuesday, the soup kitchen becomes a town hall of people sensitive to vulnerability. It creates an environment where activism, compassion and community sprout and grow organically.
“Then when COVID came, we had to readjust how we were serving our people and how we were addressing food insecurity,” said Nijjar.
During the pandemic, food insecurity doubled in Massachusetts. The percent of households considered food insecure leapt from 8.2 percent to 19.6 percent in a short time. In May of 2020, nearly 24 percent of households with children in Massachusetts were considered food insecure. The number of food insecure households continues to remain high, at 16.4 percent as of March 2022.
A reflection of East Boston’s racially and socioeconomically diverse population — many of the soup kitchen’s clients are immigrants who lost jobs during the pandemic. Service jobs commonly staffed by immigrant workers, such as food service and office sanitation, dwindled during lockdowns.
Over half of East Boston’s population is foreign-born and over 30 percent of the residents are non-citizens. To qualify for unemployment benefits, an individual must prove that they are legally authorized to work in the United States. This left many undocumented residents without an opportinity to receive benefits.
Nijjar knew she needed to get creative to continue to serve the community when they needed it most. During this time she asked, “If we close, who’s going to provide those services to them?”
While her team remained cautious about the virus, it was more important than ever for her to make sure the homeless population they served was still taken care of.
Nijjar found donors to sponsor hot meal vouchers and grocery store gift cards for soup kitchen clients. Clients who did not have a place to cook received hot meal vouchers each week. The soup kitchen team was also able to mail and distribute gift cards to clients who had a place to prepare food. The soup kitchen partnered with six or seven local restaurants for their voucher program.
“So this was a way of keeping the restaurants in business and then keeping us in business and serving our homeless,” said Nijjar.
The soup kitchen has now been converted to a food distribution site to help keep volunteers, staff, and clients safe and meet health code guidelines during the pandemic. Organizations across the city drop off food donations and supplies each week on Monday mornings. The volunteers and staff organize the food into bags and boxes to distribute on Tuesday mornings.
The bags overflow with fresh produce, canned goods, bread, and juices. On some weeks Nijjar orders halal meat from a small business owned by a Moroccan family in Vermont. They give her a discounted rate and drive two hours each way to bring it to East Boston. “In the past we were always worrying that we didn’t have food for our Muslim families,” said Nijjar. “I want to make sure everybody has the opportunity to consume meat.”
Before the sun even rises on a Tuesday morning, the line begins to form as early as 5:30 a.m. and will stretch down the block by 9 a.m.
Language barriers can be a challenge during food distribution. Nijjar has volunteers who speak Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese to help translate and ensure that everyone has access to information. The volunteers have a system for quickly and efficiently distributing the food but, once the day gets underway, organization can break down under communication delays and complications across language barriers.
Nijjar has made the process as fair as possible. She distributes numbers chronologically in the line, sometimes people ask her for extra for a friend or neighbor. The sick and elderly clients stand to the other side of the door to be taken care of first so they don’t need to stand or be in the cold for prolonged periods of time.
It’s not all easy. Nijjar frequently has to make tough decisions when the soup kitchen begins running out of food and there is still a line.
One day a man came in after distribution ended and she had to tell him they were out of food. She still had a few bags on the table in front of her reserved for deliveries to clients who could not get to the soup kitchen. The man berated her for not giving him a bag.
Nijjar does not let this deter her from her work in serving her community.
“We deal with abuse, disrespect,” she said. “And we also deal with a lot of people that are very humble and gracious and give us a lot of blessings. And those are the ones who motivate my heart to continue doing this work.”