Chilis on Wheels: Promoting Veganism and Compassion in New York and Beyond

by | Feb 23, 2024 | Heartivist Of The Week

In the USA, 17 million homes experienced food insecurity in 2022, USDA.

“Food insecurity can look like anyone. We don’t always know who doesn’t have enough to eat. It could be your next-door neighbor.” Eloísa Trinidad, Executive Director of Chilis on Wheels.

The compassion we share with our community is the most selfless kind of love. Giving our time and effort to improve the lives of others is a seed that will always find a way to blossom. Just like the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said: “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” It is this ideal of compassion towards the community that drove Eloísa Trinidad to join Chilis on Wheels, a nonprofit organization that has served hundreds of thousands of meals in seven states across the USA and Puerto Rico for over nine years.

A Mother and Son's Journey of Caring for Others

Michelle Carrera and OllieChilis on Wheels was founded by the Puerto Rican activist, Michelle Carrera, and her son Ollie. Their journey began on a cold Thanksgiving morning on the streets of New York City in 2014. At the time, Michelle had been vegan for 16 years and wanted to volunteer with her son at a vegan soup kitchen, but she couldn’t find any. So she took matters into her own hands, cooking vegan chili at home and placing it in a wheeled cart to distribute meals at Union Square. With her 4-year-old son by her side, Michelle successfully gave away 15 vegan meals. What began as a compassionate Thanksgiving action, evolved into a monthly activity at Tompkins Square Park. Eventually, it transformed into a once-a-week commitment to make plant-based food accessible to communities in need, while promoting Veganism. Michelle’s passion inspired other volunteers to join this journey to fight food insecurity in her community and beyond. Soon after, Eloísa Trinidad enthusiastically became part of the dedicated Chilis on Wheels team.

Food Insecurity in the United States

While the United States is one of the top economies in the world, around 17 million households experienced food insecurity in 2022. This represents 12.8% of American homes, according to the Household Food Security in the United States in 2022 by the US Department of Agriculture. 

Food insecurity is the inability to provide enough food for all of the household members due to economic scarcity. The tendency of food insecurity has been increasing over the last year, rising from 10.5% in 2020 and 10.2% in 2021 to 12.8% in 2022, as noted in the report. 

Although families often try to protect children from reduced food intake, in 2022, 381,000 households with children didn’t have enough money to buy food, and children experienced hunger, skipped meals, or went without eating for an entire day.

Chilis on Wheels

As the community embraced the much-needed meals provided by Michelle, Ollie, and other volunteers, the urgency to establish a nonprofit became more apparent. This step was crucial so that they could receive donations to sustain their efforts. Consequently, Chilis on Wheels was founded in 2014. Within a year, Michelle became a grantee of The Pollination Project.

“The Pollination Project grant inspired us to dream bigger,” said Michelle. “Going through the process of applying for the grant challenged me to think about broader opportunities for community engagement. It provided growth for me, inspiring me to look further than my immediate ability to offer assistance to the community and see myself as a person facilitating others to have further reach. TPP inspired me to develop community organizing skills, calling upon other community leaders to form alliances and pool our resources for help to the community. Far more than just the money, TPP offers support and opportunities, connecting you to other change makers, and allowing you to grow far beyond what you initially suspect.”

As the work expanded, several volunteers started preparing vegan meals at home for weekly distribution at two New York locations: Harlem and the East Village. As the Chilis on Wheels team became aware of the community’s needs, they expanded their support by including the giveaway of vegan dog food, warming supplies, and animal-free personal hygiene products and clothing.

The Project Goes On

In 2020, Eloísa Trinidad, founder of Vegan Activists Alliance, assumed the role of Executive Director of Chilis on Wheels. She is an award-winning policy advocate, liberation and food activist, educator, and artist raised in New York of Dominican and Peruvian background. Her vegan journey, which began in childhood, ultimately brought her into contact with Michelle Carrera.

“I knew Michelle from the vegan community in New York City,” says Eloisa. “I always admired her work of bringing food justice into veganism, which really didn’t exist in that way before. I consider her an inspiration, a mentor, and a friend. I feel that all of us are just friends who want to see a better world and we’re all collaborating to make that happen.”

Throughout the pandemic, with food insecurity increasing, Chilis on Wheels played a crucial role in helping the community combat hunger. As always, their services remained free.

“We started expanding our services”, says Eloísa. “We partnered with farms, restaurants, and supermarkets to distribute fresh produce, groceries, and restaurant-style meals at schools, to families, and to individuals. We would drive over 14 hours a day doing deliveries in addition to setting up micro pantries and organic produce stands.” 

Chilis on Wheels has come a long way. Starting as a New York-based organization it has expanded its reach by creating a network that includes California, Ohio, New England, Washington D.C., Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. In addition to distributing meals, Chilis on Wheels has diversified its services, offering talks on veganism, organizing clothing drives, implementing a mentorship program, hosting food demos, and focusing on policy to achieve systemic change. Nowadays, they distribute over 200 meals per week and operate two community fridges that provide cooked meals and groceries– an impressive 90% of the food comes from donations or is rescued from supermarkets. With six core organizers and approximately 30 volunteers, the organization collaborates with restaurants and centers, such as the Bhakti Center in New York, which generously lends its kitchen for cooking some of their vegan meals. One of Eloísa’s proudest achievements is the establishment of the Youth Steering Committee.

 “We have an amazing program which is the Youth Steering Committee. It’s the first in the country of its kind,” says Eloísa. “As you know, families with children are the most impacted by food insecurity, especially families of color. In this program, students are fighting for policy changes not only at their local school level but at the federal level. We take them to Capitol Hill, and they meet with the office of the President, the United States Department of Agriculture, and with Congress to advocate for policy and legislative action on nutrition security and the climate crisis.”

The legacy of compassion and love for the community that Michelle began one cold Thanksgiving morning along with her 4-year-old son, Ollie, persists 9 years after that noble gesture. Eloísa and the members of Chilis on Wheels continue to promote veganism and solidarity and hope to continue their work for many more years.

“People don’t realize that just because you’re food insecure or hungry doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily unhoused,” says Eloísa. “You may be working and not be able to buy enough food. Food insecurity can look like anyone at any time, at any point, we really don’t know who doesn’t have enough to eat and people often make a lot of assumptions about that and it could be your neighbor.”

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