Neighbors help feed neighbors on Martha’s Vineyard

The "extras" tables offer items that are dropped off at Food Pantry collection boxes around the Island. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Perhaps because of the isolation that tends to engender closeness, while at the same time limiting the resources for those in need, the Vineyard has long been known as a compassionate community that takes care of its own. Two local organizations that address Island hunger both rely solely on the generosity of fellow Vineyarders.

The Family-to-Family program has been providing holiday meals for the needy for six years now. The idea is that local organizations, families, and individuals can subsidize a Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter meal for a Vineyard family by donating $25. The family in need is provided with a 12-pound turkey and the necessary ingredients for a full holiday meal — all of the foodstuffs purchased at a discount from Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs.

“It’s one family sharing Thanksgiving with another family,” says Betty Burton, founder and director of the recent drive.

This Thanksgiving the Family-to-Family program provided meals for 170 Island families, and for Christmas, they are prepared for a similar number of recipients, according to Ms. Burton. Last year 120 families were served; the number has been steadily increasing, especially in the past few years.

“This year our donations are down and our expenses are up,” Ms. Burton said, adding that more contributors are aware of the Thanksgiving distribution than the Christmas one. Each year she reaches out to Island churches. Both the Unitarian Universalist Society and St. Andrew’s Church in Edgartown take up collections. The former donated around $1,000 for Thanksgiving and St. Andrew’s provided funding for 22 families. Ms. Burton adds that, although other churches don’t pool their resources, she is certain that many of the checks she receives are the result of church outreach.

The Island Food Pantry was established in 1981 to distribute food to the Vineyard’s hungry. Money or food donations are collected through boxes and money cans at a number of Island businesses. There are also organizations that periodically host fundraisers to support the program.

The Food Pantry makes available a range of grocery items at the Stone Church from 2 to 4 pm every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from mid-October to mid-April. Once they present a letter of reference from an employer, clergy, or a social service organization, recipients are given one bag of staple items and one of fresh produce every two weeks. These items are purchased with Food Pantry funds. Then folks can choose items like ketchup, mayonnaise, coffee, tea, and oil from an “extras” table. These items are public donations that are dropped off at the Pantry’s purple donation boxes.

Armen Hanjian, a retired United Methodist minister, has been the coordinator of the Island Food Pantry for 14 years. He has kept careful records tracking the number of recipients. In 1996, the Pantry served 337 families. Last year the number was up to 510 families and Mr. Hanjian says that this year the number is already at least 10 percent above last year’s. Along with the steady increase in those benefitting from the program is the number of volunteers and the volume of contributions. “Because of the recession, people are aware that there’s more need for food,” he says.

In the winter of 2008 Ms. Burton, who is also a Food Pantry volunteer, started making an appeal for more donations during services at the Unitarian Universalist Society. She explains that by Friday, the extras had dwindled to just a few less practical items. Jack Street, a fellow UU member hatched the plan of soliciting donations from customers at local grocery stores. Of his first solo effort he notes, “I started asking people as they walked through the door and in an hour and a half I had more than I could fit in my car. I had people bringing not only an item but a whole bag.”

Friends of the Food Pantry, made up primarily of volunteers from the Unitarian Universalist congregation, began their collection efforts in February 2009. They set up about four times a week in the entryways of Cronig’s Market and the Edgartown Stop & Shop. The volunteer teams wear buttons identifying themselves and hand out lists of needed items, including personal care items that Food Pantry visitors would not otherwise receive. Mr. Street notes that the volunteers average from 12 to 20 bags per collection. These donations account for a huge addition to the Pantry’s inventory.

About 90 percent of those asked outside the markets drop off at least one item on their way out, according to Mr. Street, and many donate multiple items or entire bags of groceries. “It’s a win-win situation. The volunteers get pats on the back and the customers have the gratification of helping out. What’s really struck me is what a caring community this is.”

Tonight, Dec. 9, from 6 to 10 pm, a benefit for the Food Pantry and the Red Stocking will be held at the Ocean View in Oak Bluffs, part of the continuing celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Jackson family’s ownership of the restaurant.

Admission is five or more non-perishable food items, a new toy, or cash. Along with food, there will be music, an auction, and a 50-50 raffle.

For more information about the Family-to-Family program, contact Betty Burton at 508-693-5339 or

For the Island Food Pantry, call 508-693-4764.

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