On a bustling Wednesday, volunteers are packing plastic bags with green peppers, ears of corn, peaches — and ingredients specifically used in Southeast Asian dishes, like water spinach, scallions and ginger. Other days, jasmine rice, bok choy and Japanese eggplant make their way into the bags.
“That’s super popular as well. A lot of people put it in their soups. My parents used to oven roast it and then dress it with scallions, fish sauce and lemons,” said Lisette Le of the eggplant.
Le leads the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development, or VietAID, a Dorchester, Mass., nonprofit serving a predominantly Vietnamese clientele. The agency launched its food shelf in March 2020, as many locals began to lose their jobs due to COVID-19 restrictions and food insecurity rose significantly.
“We started getting the sense that this would last longer than two weeks, or a month,” said Le.
VietAID got food donations from other organizations to distribute to the community — typical items like canned corn, sliced white bread, lettuce and macaroni and cheese. Volunteers would leave boxes outside to collect any food that was unwanted. They noticed that items like potatoes and tomato sauce were regularly coming back.
The organization asked itself, “did those items make sense to the Vietnamese diet?” Le said. So they started supplementing the bags with ingredients like jasmine rice or vermicelli noodles, staples in a Vietnamese cuisine, bought from local farms and supermarkets. But two years into the program, with the emergency pandemic funds disappearing, the question is looming of where stable funding will come from.