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Updated: May 13, 2024

The next chapter: After closing her Worcester grocery store, Lynn Cheney charts a new path to boost the local community

A woman in a green jacket and blck blouse leans against a window, smiling while looking off into the distance Photo | Matt Wright Lynn Cheney, founder of the now shuttered Maker to Main grocery store, stands outside the market's original location on Main Street in Worcester. Since closing Maker to Main, she has been named vice president of the United Way of Central Massachusetts.

Following the closure of her Maker to Main grocery store in Worcester’s Canal District, shop owner Lynn Cheney has quickly found a way to continue to contribute to the community, as she has been named to the new role of vice president of communications for the United Way of Central Massachusetts.

Since 2012, Cheney has been one of the region’s most prominent faces in efforts to support local farmers. In her new role at the United Way, she is set to play a key role at one of the area’s most prominent nonprofits.

“We’ve always been close,” said Tim Garvin, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Massachusetts, of Cheney. “When she closed down shop, our United Way had been looking for someone who’s deeply connected to the community, and who has business and communication experience.”

Tim Garvin, CEO and president of the United Way of Central Massachusetts

This new role is the latest evolution of Cheney’s mission to make Central Massachusetts a healthier and happier place.

“It’s like a match made in heaven,” Garvin said. “She’s fabulous, she’s compassionate, she’s brilliant, and she’s been a great member of our team.”

Lettuce begin

Cheney’s work in fighting food insecurity and empowering local farmers began in earnest in 2012, when she founded Lettuce Be Local food hub in Sterling. An effort to connect local farms with restaurants, caterers, schools, and eventually individual consumers, the organization included a network of more than 50 chefs and 100+ area farms.

In 2020, Lettuce Be Local morphed into Maker to Main, a brick-and-mortar grocery store originally in downtown Worcester, which aimed to offer a curated selection of the best fruits, vegetables, and other food items local farmers and food producers had to offer.

Maricelis Gonzalez, executive director of El Buen Samaritano Food Program on Piedmont Street in Worcester, first met Cheney in 2020 during the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic, where food insecurity suddenly became a bigger issue.

Gonzalez quickly formed a trinity with Garvin and Cheney to launch Farm to Market to Pantry to Table, a yearlong effort where United Way donated fresh vegetables to the food program through Maker to Main, helping the city’s most vulnerable residents.

“I love Lynn. She’s amazing.” Gonzalez said.

A chapter ends

Maker to Main faced an uphill battle from the beginning, as the pandemic emptied downtown Worcester of its usual crowd of businesspeople and disrupted businesses nationwide.

After three years of operating on Main Street, Cheney decided to move the store to the city’s growing Canal District, but a buildout of the new space took longer and cost more than anticipated, further hurting the young business’ chance of success, she said.

The store closed its doors for good in January, in the wake of a number of small businesses in Worcester expressing concerns about the impact of rising prices and changing consumer trends. During its four years of operation, the store directly contributed $2.1 million to more than 175 local farmers, said Cheney.

A woman in a grey suit jacket
Maricelis Gonzalez, executive director of El Buen Samaritano Food Program

“When I heard she was closing, I was in tears,” Gonzalez said. “The reason I was hurt by it was that she had a local market in the city selling fresh fruits and vegetables, but also was providing fresh and organic food to our organization on a monthly basis.”

Food insecurity was hardly just a pandemic-era problem, said Gonzalez. The situation right now is perhaps the bleakest in the 33 years the El Buen Samaritano Food Program has been operational, highlighting the need for action and collaboration with groups like the United Way.

“We’ve never seen it the way things are now,” Gonzalez said. “Everybody is running out of food. Just on one [average] Friday, we’re seeing over 400 households come through our door. Everyone is in survival mode.”

Gonzalez frequently provides food to individuals who are already working two to three jobs but are still struggling to make ends meet, she said.

A bright spot

Cheney’s new job at the United Way has been a welcome distraction from the pains of closing her business, she said. The process of finalizing the details of closing a business is more complicated than one might assume.

“Surprisingly, it’s just as hard to close a business as it is to open one. It just requires an extensive amount of time, in addition to combatting the emotional aspect of closing a business,” she said. “When you open a business, there’s obviously an enormous amount of stress, but that is combated by the unique sentiment you have and the opportunity you seek to build relationships and grow. When you close one, it’s devastating.

“You’re constantly burdened with pure sadness.”

The United Way role has been reenergizing and a welcome distraction from the sadness.

“Making this transition into the United Way has really been a bright spot in all of this,” she said.

Worcester business owners and the community have expressed their appreciation for Cheney’s work. Just days after she closed Maker to Main, Harry Kokkinis, former president and current executive chairman of the board of directors at Table Talk Pies, and Kathryn Tsandikos, proprietor of George's Coney Island Hot Dogs, reached out expressing a desire to honor her commitment to the city with an event.

“I was really taken back by the experience and conversation with two amazing individuals who have had longstanding relationships in our communities with small businesses,” Cheney said, referencing Kokkinis and Tsandikos, two people she only somewhat knew before they had reached out.

Always one to deflect attention from herself back on to the cause of food insecurity, Cheney requested the event in honor of her, held on May 9 at BirchTree Bread in Worcester, be a fundraiser for the Massachusetts Farm Resiliency Fund.

“They were adamant about wanting to do something to recognize what I’ve done,” she said, “So I quickly diverted that attention to making the event about farms, as I’ve liked to do for the past 12 years.”

This fund was established by the United Way in July to support farmers impacted by flooding during the summer, when 2,000 acres of crops were damaged, causing an economic loss of at least $15 million, according to a press release announcing the fund issued by Governor Maura Healey’s office. The long-term intention of the funds is to boost the resilience of area farms, against the impacts of climate change.

A match made in heaven

Cheney started the role at United Way in March on a part-time basis, as she balanced the role with finalizing the closure of Maker to Main. She transitioned to full time in early April. Her experience in working with the nonprofit in the past played a large role in her decision to join the organization.

While farmers and food insecurity are sure to still be a focus of Cheney, her new role at the United Way will also involve highlighting and bringing attention to other efforts led by the organization.

In addition to its food-focused initiatives, the nonprofit supports after-school programs and residents facing homelessness, among others. The organization received $7.8 million in contributions and grants and had net assets worth $10.8 million in 2021, according to its filings with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

“In the last four years I’ve had the pleasure of working with [Tim Garvin], predominantly from a food insecurity side,” Cheney said, “However, I had no clue about the vast amount of things that the United Way is involved in our community in Worcester. It’s really unbelievable work, and it really provided affirmation in my decision to join this team.”

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