Food stamps pose a challenge for hundreds of Island residents

Food stamps pose a challenge for hundreds of Island residents

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More than 584 Island households receive food stamps. Betty Burton wants to give residents a taste of living on $31.50 for a week.

Just after 12 noon on Good Friday, two hours before the doors of the First Baptist Church on the corner of Spring and William streets in Vineyard Haven were scheduled to open, a line of approximately 50 people of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities began to form. Inside, a makeshift food pantry equipped with 8,500 pounds of healthy holiday fixings including ham, ground turkey, bags of apples, oranges, carrots, onions, potatoes, canned pineapple and a dozen eggs, were being prepped by a team of volunteers.

Within an hour, the line outside nearly doubled. By 3 pm, when all was said and done, 378 people, including 67 seniors and 98 children, had filtered through the church doors. Once the food had run out, Betty Burton, coordinator of the Family to Family program and director of Serving Hands, a volunteer run program that provides free food to those in need, handed out gift cards to Reliable Market.

“People don’t realize that there are many people who are in need on this Island,” Ms. Burton said.

Ms. Burton believes Friday’s food distribution is indicative of a larger issue.

“There is an extreme lack of awareness when it comes to food insecurity both on and off Island,” Ms. Burton said.

To date, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, has benefitted more than 47 million Americans, 876,992 living in Massachusetts, and 692 people on Martha’s Vineyard.

To heighten awareness of the issue, Ms. Burton is organizing a food stamp challenge that will ask participants to live on a weekly food budget of $31.50, roughly $4.50 a day or $1.50 per meal from Monday May 5 to Friday, May 9, which equates to the average monthly benefit.

“We want to inform the general public about what food stamps are, and how much, or little, $31.50 per week can get you,” Ms. Burton said. “We also want to let Islanders know where those in need can get extra food.”

As the name of the program suggests, SNAP is meant to be a supplemental form of assistance and is not intended to be the only source of income for food. The average monthly benefit for one person is around $126.

“As anyone who will take the challenge will learn, it is nearly impossible to do and still consume a healthy diet,” Ms. Burton said. “So, in the first place we’re trying to raise awareness of the general issue, which concerns all Americans, not just people on Martha’s Vineyard.”

Ms. Burton said the food stamp challenge is a good measure of the difficulties faced by millions of low-income Americans. “Here on Martha’s Vineyard, we’re lucky to have a place like Serving Hands and the Food Pantry. It’s hard to imagine what would happen if we didn’t have those resources.”

Challenge rules

The food stamp challenge rules are relatively straight-forward. Participants can only spend the equivalent of the state’s average weekly SNAP allowance which in Massachusetts, breaks down to $31.50 per person for the week.

Participants can’t accept any outside food or eat restaurant meals or use anything already in their pantry or refrigerator.

“Living on a food stamp budget for just a week could never come close to duplicating the struggles encountered by low-income families week after week, month after month,” Ms. Burton said. “What it will do, we hope, is give you a new perspective about hunger in America and renewed energy to help transform it from how it is into how it should be.”

Participants are asked to keep all receipts of their purchases as well as keep a running log all of their food and beverage spending over the course of the week. Ms. Burton has set up a Facebook page where participants can blog about their experiences during the challenge.

“The blog is important so we can learn from one another,” Ms. Burton said. “What did you have to give up? Coffee? Did that make you crabby for a few days? Tell us about it!”

Ms. Burton said the challenge is meant as a learning experience for those who participate.

“I think people will learn that it is next to impossible to have healthy meals on food stamps,” Ms. Burton said. “It is particularly difficult if you have children or someone in the home who has a chronic illness that requires a healthy diet.  In fact, we all need the vitamins, minerals and protein we can get from lots of fruits, vegetables and protein items. It’s very hard to do that on a food stamp budget.”

Food stamps MV

According to the state Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), as of  March 1, 2014, a total of 584 households on Martha’s Vineyard received SNAP benefits. The breakdown in the DTA’s report included 282 individuals spread across 195 households in Tisbury; 207 people across 107 households in Edgartown; 158 individuals across 105 households in Oak Bluffs; and 45 individuals across 19 households in Chilmark/Aquinnah.

SNAP benefits are funded by the federal government and administered by the DTA. Eligible residents include families with children, as well as the elderly and disabled, the working poor with limited income, or those who are temporarily unemployed or underemployed.

The DTA processes SNAP applications and confirms eligibility which is determined by a calculation that takes family size, citizenship status, and household income into consideration.

SNAP recipients must be a resident of the state and have a limited income and savings. For example, a single person must have an annual household income of less than $21,660 and a current bank balance (savings and checking combined) under $2,001. For a family of four, the income limit is $44,100.

SNAP benefits are delivered to an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. At a grocery check-out counter, the EBT card works like a debit card. It is used to  provide two forms of public assistance, SNAP funding and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

According to the DTA, participation in the SNAP program has increased dramatically over the past five years. In 2009, there were 211 SNAP households on Island. By 2013, the number had more than doubled to 466 households.

For more information or to participate in the food stamp challenge, email Betty Burton at

Food Assistance Programs

What: Serving Hands Food Distribution

Where: The First Baptist Church Parish House at the corner of William Street and Spring Streets, Vineyard Haven.

Serving Hands is a volunteer-run program of the Vineyard Committee on Hunger that provides free food — usually several bags of groceries — once a month to those in need.Food is distributed on the Friday following the fourth Thursday of the month from 2 to 3 pm, year-round.

What: Family-to-Family Holiday Meals

Where: First Baptist Church Parish House, Vineyard Haven

Family-to-Family is a program that provides the ingredients for a traditional holiday meal including turkey, dressing, squash, eggs, and bags of apples, oranges, onions, and carrots to families in need the Friday before Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

What: Island Food Pantry

Where: The United Methodist Church of Martha’s Vineyard/ Christ Mission Life Center (“The Stone Church”)

Open six months a year, clients receive three bags of groceries, twice a month from October 15 to April 15.  Open Monday, Wednesday, Friday 2–4 pm.

On the firstand 14th day of the month, they receive a $25 Stop & Shop card.

What: Community Suppers

Where: Old Whaling Church, Chilmark Community Church, West Tisbury Congregational Church, Saint Augustine’s Catholic Church, Grace Episcopal Church, Trinity Methodist Church, Federated Church.

A warm dinner is available seven nights a week from January through March.

What: Lunches at the senior centers

Where: Howes House, Tisbury Senior Center, Island Elderly Housing, Oak Bluffs Council on Aging

A nutritious lunch is provided at all three down-Island senior centers and Howes House in West Tisbury during the week.  A $2 contribution is welcome, but seniors can also receive it for free.


    1. I find it odd, maybe I missed it in the article, but stop and shop is the number 1 contributor to the food pantry. If denied approval for the MVC I would like to see them reduce that donation (not really but just saying) to recoup the money they have already spent on this island to date to get this project going.

      1. Great business plan. Move to horrid location. Allow building to fall into ruin. Donate a tiny percent of massive profits to local food pantry while you simultaneously throw away food. = entitled to build a store waaaayy too big for way too small an area and destroy traffic patterns for years to come with a corporate McMansion. Yup.

    2. rice is 8.99 for ten pounds. Easy on the digestive system. Asians love it.

  1. The island folks voted by a super duper majority for this Food stamp president. Food stamp enrollment is up 70 percent under Obama. The job market is still lagging, dying, the poverty rate is on the rise and we are seeing our nation’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, I hope you all are happy. I wont touch on all the work Paddy Moore, the moveon.orgers and the island dems did to get this Obamacare health care nightmare thu this time but will at some point when that door gets opened in the near future. All I hear is It’s BUSH’s fault and “What Does it Matter”?

    1. Remember, in the mindset of many, your property is their property. But I am a firm believer in actual social justice, which means, I am entitled to keep what I earn, and everyone else is entitled to keep what they earn.

      1. In the eyes of the town your property is theirs. 4 times a year I pay rent to own it. I would like to see a state law if you fall on hard times the state cant seize your property for non payment of taxes. They should wait till you die.

        1. why? So services suffer? Teachers get laid off, police and fire get pink slips because you don’t pay your taxes? But don’t wait, when you die I can get rehired? That is a ridiculous statement. You can rent a room to make money, sell your house move to something else? Plenty of people left Michigan for a job in Florida, you can leave anywhere and go anywhere and work anywhere if you desire. To wait till you die? I hope you live long to get out of your hard times. There are ways to get help from the town / public agency’s and other places. Services are those that need it.

          1. Keep your services. Plenty of people lost their houses in Michigan and froze to death.

          2. Froze to death. Did they now? Facts? Plenty is how many in your math? BTW, it’s Michigan, it’s colder. People I am sure freeze to death there in good times too.

    2. Kind of silly to turn this into a political thing, this is about making
      sure families have the items they need and NOT go hungry. But since you
      are turning this into a political thing, would raising the minimum wage
      help out making families less dependent on food stamps? As long as the
      minimum wage stays where it is, the number of food stamp recipients
      will continue to rise. . .

  2. So I could spend $126-157 a week on groceries for my family of five (one infant). That is insane! We currently spend that for two weeks of food with some leftover, and some special dietary needs. You know what we don’t buy? Juice, soda, prepackaged junk, etc.

    1. I LOVED your comment You need to teach your strategies. I’m sure it is just common sense for you, but often common sense just eludes others. I firmly believe in SNAP and food pantries as a safety net…these are important programs. But I’m with you…we average $60.00/week grocery bill for a family of two, including a dog and two cats. We are in our 60’s and just had our annual physicals…we are generally healthy. Knock off the junk food, and all will work.

    1. most people on food stamps do have jobs actually…they just don’t get paid enough to sustain their families needs.

      1. I can’t agree more. this “challenge” assumes 31.50 is all they solely have to use for food, which shouldn’t be the case.

    2. I’d really like to see your grocery list if you can feed a family of four on $31.50 a week….

      1. I don’t claim to be able to. No one should. This was my point. No one should solely rely on assistance as their source of income. It’s meant to assist. This notion that ‘food stamps should pay for it all’ and ‘is all that they have’, is a false reality. Like pointed out by Geo, many assistance families have multiple jobs

        1. Okay, got ya. The way your comment is written though it does appear you are saying people should be able to live on $31.50 a week.

  3. It’s sad that the top comment for this story is: “Obama…..did it….” I’m no Obama supporter, but there is a much deeper issue here. It’s a joke that vineyarders preach “community” “values”, etc when your neighbors are struggling right before your very eyes. How about this for an idea, instead of spending town money debating whether a rotary will degrade the island’s integrity for years, think outside the box and solve the hunger issue locally. Instead of preaching island values try to actually do something…

  4. For all those on this island who constantly fall on the sword for this administration which believe it or not is responsible for all these terrible ongoing internal problems as this could have been reversed in the time he has had as your Anointed one “Promised” and you all tried to convince us against our better knowledge!
    Please review in your spare time if you would the below site to see what you have done to our country and please tell me if this is the ~Fundamental Change~ you wanted for yourselves, us, our children and our nation.

    1. Yes, it should have been, “Food Stamps Pose A Challenge For Republicans”. They think hungry children should be hungry… and proud of it.

      1. Actually they don’t. Conservatives believe that the strangling layers of taxes built into every product – especially food – should be pruned. Conservatives believe that the time proven effect of cutting taxes will generate more jobs and help eliminate the need for food stamps.

          1. You should tell your democrats to stop taxing us to death and running up the national debt and creating an impossible climate for job creators. You should also tell young women to (pick a euphemism for abstaining from sex) so they don’t have children out of wedlock. You should tell your young men to marry the women they impregnate and support the famiies they created. Go spend some time at the Food Pantry yourself. Notice the pedigree of the cars. If you could follow those cars back to where they spend the night, you would find fine houses, filled with all the great gadgets and electronics money can buy. Don’t play that cheap card of hungry children. You sound like Mrs. Clinton.

          2. Do you know why my students are eating? They’re not eating because they are all on Ridlan and other ADD drugs that curb their appetite. We have everyone on drugs now adays. If legalization of marijuana passes then everyone will have the munchies.

          3. forget about your washington rants because you can stay local and still have fact to bash the current obama school lunch program. Yes, kids are walking out of school lunch lines but the true hidden secret is the school lunch, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School lunch program run by Chartwells is $60,000 in the hole. Check those facts and you’ll see how much of a bust Obama’s obesity program has on our wallets locally. Who pays? The taxpayer.

          4. My school lunches consisted of a warm bologna sandwich, some celery sticks ,and chocolate chip cookies in a brown bag. we sat at our desks and ate, then had time to go outside. I guess all this attention to food is progress.

          5. We should go back to counting ketchup as a serving of vegetables! Oh, and dog food is now safe for human consumption…the seniors can now safely eat it like they did in the 60s and early 70s.

          6. Obsessive anger rants are so helpful. Mentioning a hungry child certainly does set you off.

          7. I take it you feed lots of hungry children and then tell them to vote democrat or something?

        1. Don’t forget they also campaign to get rid of all those bothersome government food and safety inspections that get in the way of increasing profits.

  5. I am disgusted to be surrounded by people who dreamed of this, support this, and worked their fingers to the bone to accomplish this! I just wish you would now write letters to the editor again but this time saying why you were always right, why we were always wrong and what you plan next for us.

    —>> 92,594,000: AMERICANS NOT WORKING HITS RECORD! <<—

    — Growing up I heard "For those who fought for it, Freedom has a taste the protected will never know" — How true that is still today and those people who never never paid the price never loose a minuet of sleep! How disgraceful!

  6. Thank you for this article. I firmly believe food insecurity can be addressed…and not just with a government handout. It is important to have a safety-net, but also important not to encourage food stamps as a lifestyle. How quickly we forget that this country endured a Depression. Time to get creative, folks. Nutritious and inexpensive meals can be prepared in a wok…rice is a wonderful staple. Home economics should be reintroduced into the school curriculum…how to can, jar, pickle and preserve the harvest. Seven loaves of zucchini bread can be made for only a couple of dollars more than a single loaf when zucchini is in abundance (we can fit seven aluminum loaf pans in our apartment size oven…no extra propane costs for the six extra loafs…same temp, same time). There is also much to be said for bartering and sharing. Get a shellfish license, and SHARE or barter for a side of venison. Teach others. Grow a SINGLE crop (we do garlic…the scapes make an awesome pesto to boot…no need for basil and garlic and so easy to freeze or give away) and barter for another crop (we barter our garlic and garlic scape pesto for fingerling potatoes and corn). Kale is hearty and easy to grow. For those without access to a kitchen or small garden…time for churches, senior centers, and other organizations to rent out their commercial kitchens so people can have access to a facility in which to prepare their meals to freeze or otherwise preserve. It is disgusting to see the sheer waste of food on this island hitting the landfills. Cut coupons and check sale flyers. If buying in bulk, do it with one or two others and divvy the goods…it is an extremely economical strategy. A basic understanding of nutrition and economics is woefully lacking these days…that is our downfall. EDUCATON, EDUCATION, EDUCATION! I shall get off my high-horse with one of my favorites: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”

    1. Good advice and a great message for more community-based support. Let’s not forget though that there are a lot of single-parents working 60+ hours a week that make less than $18,000/year and literally, and even if they knew how to, don’t have the time to properly shop, garden and cook.

      1. I agree, Ken. It is a complicated issue. Community based support is imperative to address food insecurity on this island. But just a little bit of education on how to stretch the grocery budget can go a long way. It is just amazing what a wok can produce with very little cost and very little time…and nutritional needs are met. And yet many don’t know how to work their way around a wok. I challenged myself to make my own sushi this past winter. With a small tool called a “Sushezi” ($14.95 on Amazon) I was able to make 25 California Rolls in 15 minutes for a total cost of $2.75…it provided a week’s worth of lunches. Pesto is very inexpensive to make and freezes beautifully. A dozen eggs will make seven egg-salad sandwiches. I think if we all think creatively hunger on this island can be humanely addressed. I believe in food stamps, food pantries, and community suppers…there MUST be a safety net. But I also believe in teaching self-reliance with an attitude towards frugality. And I will happily teach my skills. We can all learn from each other.

        1. The education is so hard though…we’re fighting hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising done by the food companies every year. Our teachers are confused. Earlier this year we had a teacher send home a whole grain, home-baked cookie that was in my son’s lunch and suggested we package something “healthy” like Go-gurts instead.

          1. Oh man…that’s outrageous!. At the risk of dating myself, I had home economics in junior high. I learned the basics, and the skills last a lifetime. I would like to see a return of such programs in the curriculum (sadly, children often NEED to be able to prepare foods for their family these days). At the very least, kids should be able to distinguish between nutrition and garbage. Kids should also be given a basic understanding of finances, budgeting, thrift, and saving. Oh…and it wouldn’t hurt to teach a life-saving technique like CPR in the high school. Somehow, the basics got tossed out the window with the advent of cell phones, iPods, and video games. Hunger is unacceptable…as is food waste. Children should be able to prepare a bowl of oatmeal, construct a PB&J sandwich, brew a jar of sun tea, steam a pot of rice and make a banana smoothie. Children should also be taught about food advertising, manipulation, and exploitation. We are fighting an uphill battle with obesity and malnutrition. As you noted…it is a tremendous challenge and it is our responsibility as a community to address food insecurity. Make sure your boy keeps taking that whole grain cookie in his lunch bag!

          2. On a positive note I can tell you that many of those things are taught at the Edgartown School. They have a Home Ec room which I believe all students take where they learn some solid basic cooking, and home related skills. They also have a banking program. Still though, the marketers out there are smart…make your product sound and look like a healthy food…promote that it provides some useless vitamin or mineral and it’s considered “healthy.”

          3. That IS encouraging news, Ken! Good for the Edgartown School! Yes…the marketing of garbage foods to kids is an outrage. These advertisers should be ashamed of themselves and taken to task. Cigarettes can no longer be advertised on television and yet highly processed crap is fair game…caffeine laden sodas, chips, Slim Jims, and sugar, sugar, sugar. Meanwhile, obesity and diabetes are at epidemic levels. Advertisers make damn sure that their garbage is displayed at eye level to catch the attention of children…sleazy stuff. There should be a mandatory class field trip to the grocery store so kids understand how packaging and displays are designed to manipulate their young minds. Kids are essentially smart creatures…they don’t like being played like a fiddle. But the sad fact is that many parents missed the class, and the consumption of garbage repeats itself to the next generation. Personally, I would like to see food stamps (EBT cards) follow the same guidelines as WIC. There is NOTHING shameful about needing a helping hand…but I think it is reasonable to expect our tax dollars are contributing to health, not chronic illness guaranteed to bring our health care system to its knees. So many issues plague our island…homelessness, substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, poverty, food insecurity…hell, we can only stick our heads in the sand for so long. But I have great faith that if we work together as a community, share our knowledge, get back to some essential basics, live within our means, and extend kindness towards others, especially those facing a rough patch, we can turn things around. Thanks, Ken. I’ve enjoyed “chatting” with you…

  7. Across America the people you see working in the neighborhood shops are all using the EBT card. It is a vibrant part of every community. How no one here has posted the delays to build the new supermarket are a fine example of bickering hurting the Island economy every day. What genuine purpose is being served ? Help our families enough posturing already !