Right before Thanksgiving 2014, Michelle Carrera from Brooklyn, New York, wanted to teach her then 4-year-old son Ollie about community. As a vegan, she wanted to find a soup kitchen that served plant-based food, yet she was unable to find a single one in New York City. She took the initiative and made vegan chili at home, which she and Ollie then distributed to the homeless themselves. What started as a one time event, a mother and her son preparing food for just about 15 people, quickly became a monthly and then a weekly occurrence. A movement was born. Today, Chilis on Wheels has chapters in several other cities, including Denver, Portland, San Diego and even Puerto Rico, and feeds approximately 800 people every month. The demand is high, but the resources are scarce. To this day, Michelle still pays for the majority of the food herself and even though the organization has a couple of regular donors, for the most part, they don’t. If you want to help Chilis on Wheels, you can do so by donating money or food, by volunteering and by spreading the message.
[1 in 6 people go to bed hungry every night in the U.S. Michelle and her son Ollie are on a mission to help change that.]
Ollie, now 5 years old, loves helping his mama, as he calls her. “We give out vegan chili, because… we’re vegan.” he tells me and quickly adds “that means I save the animals… I like saving the animals.” Every Thursday, Michelle starts preparing for their weekly Saturday distribution in Tompkins Square Park in the heart of New York City’s East Village. She was able to get a membership with the Restaurant Depot, which allows her to stretch out her money significantly and to buy ingredients in bulk. On Fridays, she and Ollie start cooking the chili in their Brooklyn home. They haven’t missed a single week since the day they started. In the beginning, a couple of volunteers would meet them on Saturday mornings to help them carry the food to Manhattan on the Q train. Fortunately, one of the volunteers is now able to pick them up and drive them there, which makes things much easier. The meeting point every Saturday is Avenue B and East 9th street where they set up their little distribution table. From 1-3pm, a sign that reads “Free Vegan Chili – If you’re hungry, please take one” invites people to join them. Driven by a desire to help as many people as possible, the team often continues their distribution at The Bowery Mission, a homeless shelter in the Lower East Side. To Michelle, connecting with people and listening to their stories is just as important as offering them a warm meal. The 35-year-old translator has been a vegan for over 14 years and her son Ollie was born vegan.
[Ollie and his friend Zimi, who is also 5 years old and vegan]
“I wanted to get Ollie involved and do people work.” she recalls. “We had done some animal work as well as some environmental work, the People’s Climate March, but we hadn’t really done any community work, so I just wanted to get him exposed. I searched online for a vegan soup kitchen and nothing came up, so I said ‘alright, I’ll just make it myself at home and we’ll give out however much we can.’ We gave out 15 meals that first day. It was the first snow of the season and New York City was empty because it was Thanksgiving. So, it was snowing and the people that were out there… it was harrowing to see.”
“We’re trained not to see them, not to look at them.”
“You don’t actually see people who are in these conditions when you walk past them. You’re almost blind to it. We’re trained not to see them, not to look at them. But when you look for them and actually really start looking, it’s powerful… I don’t want to start crying – but it’s really powerful and I said to myself ‘once a year, what is this doing? I can’t… I have to do more.’ So I started doing it once a month, but even then I felt like it wasn’t enough, so I started doing it every week. In the winter, when you’re out there, you see people who are in extreme conditions and people eat really fast. Seeing that hits you hard. I couldn’t afford to do it on my own once a week, so I formalized it into a non profit and now we have [multiple] chapters. We have a total of 34 volunteers and we have people in other cities who’d like to start chapters. I would love to do that, we just don’t have the funding right now. We need money, we have a couple people who donate regularly, but for the most part, we don’t.”
[Lisa, on the left, gets chili every Saturday]
[On the left, Irene, who lives in a homeless shelter and whose life is not easy but who, according to Michelle, always has a kind word and a smile to share. About the food, she says that not everyone likes beans, but that she happens to like them very much. On the right, Israel Rolán Rivera from Puerto de San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, who came to New York when he was 12 years old. He’s now 70 and relies on Chilis on Wheels to make his Saturdays a little easier.]
The most important thing for Michelle is to remind people that this is about helping those we often don’t see or don’t want to see. Whether they’re homeless or volunteers, they’re all part of the Chilis on Wheels Community, including Jimmy, who is 28 and went from being homeless to becoming a regular volunteer. Jimmy became homeless a couple of years ago due to unfortunate circumstances and unbelievably high rents in New York City. He is vegan himself and therefore knows how difficult it is to get a meatless meal in NYC shelters and soup kitchens. He came to veganism after researching where his food came from. “Most people have their addictions. Me, I’m addicted to knowledge.” he explains “If I can learn it and I can prove it, I like to do that. You should always push forward for progress.”
At Chilis on Wheels, a sense of community is central. Connecting people, listening to them, helping them. Even though it’s a vegan organization, their approach is an inclusive one, everyone is welcome and if they want to know more about veganism, great. The organization’s vegan education director, Anthony Martinez (left, on the picture below), is a prime example of someone who turned their life around and now lives to help others. He went from a standard American diet to a plant-based diet before trying out the paleo diet and ultimately finding his way to ethical veganism. Today, he proudly calls himself a vegan activist and an ally to many other social justice issues who spends most of his free time volunteering and teaching people about veganism.
[On the left, Anthony Martinez, the organization’s vegan education director. On the right, Hector Manuel, 69 years old, who says: “I grew up in New York, on 7th street, between Avenues A and B. That school there, I used to go to that school. This park here [Tompkins Square Park], I used to come here to play. This building over there, that used to be closed for many many years. I used to dream of it, of buying it and fixing it up for homeless people. I used to be a drug addict, I’ve been here and there because of the drinking and drugging. I did a lot of things I’d rather not mention. I’m sober 18 years now. I did it through prayer. NA, AA, none of that helped. (…) These people here, they give out food and they’re good people. The chili… I love it. It’s delicious. What do I think of it being vegan? It’s great, I love it. I’m almost vegan myself. It’s good for your health, it’s better for your health even.”]
[“Some people are a bit surprised that the food is vegan, but then you explain to them that it’s still good and a lot of people, once they try it, they actually really like it.”
– Jessica Newman,18, one of the volunteers. She’s a freshman at Kingsborough College, majoring in in education studies and psychology.]
Ultimately, Chilis on Wheels is an organization for the community that won’t be able to survive without outside help. Since the start of their fundraiser a few weeks ago, a lot of people have shown support, but there’s still so much left to do. Michelle’s dream is to collaborate with people all over the country and even the world who would like to start chapters. She wants to feed more people, help more people. To support Chilis on Wheels, please consider donating or if you’d like to volunteer or help in any other way, don’t hesitate to contact Michelle directly.
At the end of my day with Chilis on Wheels, I asked Ollie what people say to him when they find out he is vegan. His response: “They say ‘Vegan Ollie, I love you and I like the chili!” And his message to the world? “Chilis on Wheels and save the animals!!”
“Chilis on Wheels and save the animals!!”
A very special THANK YOU to Beanfields Snacks, Cocomels, YumEarth Organics, Justin’s, So Delicious Dairy Free, Monksmeats, Go Veggie Foods, Blossom Bakery NYC and Angelica Kitchen for donating vegan food for Chilis on Wheels’ Halloween and Thanksgiving events.
[A “Chilis on Wheels” Halloween in Tompkins Square Park]
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