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Vegan volunteers dish out free, healthy meals to NYC's needy

Krystal Valentin, right, 24, from Brooklyn, a volunteer

Krystal Valentin, right, 24, from Brooklyn, a volunteer with Chilis on Wheels, gives out free vegan meals in Tompkins Square Park in June. Photo Credit: Jefferson Siegel

Soup kitchens and food pantries offer welcome sustenance to the homeless or to those who simply can’t afford food. And a free meal is a welcome offering, regardless of  the ingredients. But one organization is doing its part to offer the needy a healthy alternative to meat-based fare.

Chilis on Wheels, a mobile soup kitchen, has been dishing out free vegan meals for almost five years. Twice a week, on Fridays in Harlem and on Saturdays in the East Village, volunteers set up a table and distribute freshly cooked vegan food.

“We prepare between 75-100 meals every week,” said organizer Joe Creaco, 54, a graphic artist from Queens.

“We don’t discriminate, we give to anyone who needs a meal, who wants a meal. Its all vegan. We’re all animal rights activists, that’s why we’re vegan,” Creaco explained.

A vegan diet, unlike a vegetarian one, excludes all animal products. That means no eggs, cheese or honey. 

On a recent Saturday, Creaco and several volunteers set up a table in their usual spot at the East Ninth Street and Avenue B entrance to Tompkins Square Park. The day’s fare included pasta salad, curried chickpea stew and butternut squash with carrots over rice. For dessert, there were vegan doughnuts.

Miles Budde, 28, from Manhattan, who works in film production, handed out containers of food to the hungry and the curious.

“I volunteered at soup kitchens for a long time and I went vegan about six years ago,” Budde explained. “When I went vegan I couldn’t in good conscience feed the community meat and dairy. I want to help out the community and I also want to promote veganism,” he said.

Budde learned about Chilis on YouTube and decided it was something he wanted to contribute to every weekend.

“When it comes to people who are hungry and need to eat, it’s not my biggest concern to convince them to go vegan," he said. "I’m simply feeding them. Nothing makes me feel better than when someone tells me that they enjoyed the food that I cooked for them."

Chilis on Wheels was founded by Michelle Carrera in 2014.

“I was looking to do something positive and community minded for my son, Ollie, who was 4 at the time,” says Carrera, 38, a vegan for the past 18 years.  “It was around Thanksgiving and I was looking for a vegan soup kitchen to volunteer in. We were a vegan family. I was not able to find one, so I decided to do it myself in my kitchen.” 

Carrera prepared 15 meals that holiday, and she and Ollie walked the streets of Manhattan handing them out. “In talking to the people, I realized I had to do more. We started doing it weekly. Volunteers started joining us and it grew organically from there.

“We started out doing chili; it was something people really liked, something that was cheap to make in large quantities. It’s filling and nutritionally packed and warming in the winter.”

Chilis on Wheels now has more than a dozen chapters across the country, including in Puerto Rico, Carrera’s birthplace. Carrera is proud of the flood relief she provided after Hurricane Maria, when she started a community center in Puerto Rico to distribute food and offer workshops on veganism, vegan cooking and sustainability.

And the food is well received. 

“I think it’s great to let people know that vegan food is tasty,” said musician Felice Rosser, 61, from the East Village, as she sat on a bench with a container of curried chickpeas.

East Villager Andres Marino, 43, stopped by the Chilis table with his sons, Ignacio, 9 and Eugenio, 6, who dug into their vegan lunch. He dropped a five-dollar bill into the voluntary contribution box.

Beth Sopko, a Lower East Side dog walker, sat on a bench while spooning tomato cabbage soup with rice.

“They’re amazing,” said Sopko. “I think it’s just awesome that they will give out free vegan food on the street. It’s a very good introduction for people who may be curious about vegan food.”

In addition to weekly food offerings, Chilis gives out free clothing on the first Saturday of the month. Of course, it’s cruelty-free garb, which means no wool, fur or leather.

While vegan restaurants are popping up all over town, Carrera says Chilis is the only vegan soup kitchen in the city. She estimates Chilis has distributed 100,000 free vegan meals since its inception.

Almost all of the food comes from donations, including from Lifethyme Natural Market in the West Village, Marty’s V Burger, Dunwell Donuts and the Orchard Grocer.

Carrera said she is gratified by the response her venture has received.

“People are curious, they’ve heard about veganism and they’re grateful that we’re there. It’s about community too. We’re engaging with people, talking with people and building relationships.”

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