Faces of Food Insecurity: ‘The issue is vegetables’

Eating healthy is a costly proposition.

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Being able to feed a family fresh vegetables and produce can be difficult and costly.

This is part of a series describing the faces of food insecurity on Martha’s Vineyard. The subject’s name in the following article has been changed in order to maintain privacy.

If single mother Rachel had bought back-to-school clothes and supplies for her kids this year, she wouldn’t have been able to afford food for the month.

“So no,” Rachel said. “My kids don’t have new backpacks and lunch boxes.”

Behind housing and childcare, Rachel said food is her third highest weekly expense. She pays particular attention to what her kids eat. She knows good health is linked to proper nutrition. “I want my kids eating as many healthy and organic vegetables as possible,” she said. “Whole grains. Almond milk. Less sugar. It costs a lot of money.”

Rachel makes it to the grocery store about two times a week. “A friend recently saw me in Stop & Shop,” she said. “She told me I don’t look happy. And it’s because I’m not. I’m stressed out. I go in there with a plan, and nothing’s on sale. For a bag of groceries to cost $100 … my heart just goes down to my feet every time.”

Rachel said Stop & Shop is hit-or-miss. She said produce goes bad quickly, and it’s rare that organic, healthy foods are on sale. She said the discount card at Cronig’s has been a saving grace, but generally not for for produce. She’s yet to find a reliable, affordable, on-Island spot to get fresh veggies.

“The issue is vegetables,” she said. “My philosophy of eating is that produce is most important.”

Island Grown Initiative’s (IGI) Mobile Market, a food truck stocked with locally grown fruits and vegetables, is just shy of Rachel’s dream.

“It’s great,” she said. “But it’s still expensive. $5 for a package of strawberries? That’s crazy.”

Rachel wants to live in a world where fresh local produce is free. “That’s my vision,” she said. “Maybe I’ll do it out of the back of my car one day.”

But that’s not to say Rachel doesn’t believe in working for what you have. “I went to college. I graduated. I found housing. I got a job. I did all these things that critics of poor people say we don’t do,” she said. “I serve. I vote. I pay my bills. I don’t buy lottery tickets. It’s all still such a struggle.”

Rachel has a 10-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. They receive SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps), and utilize Serving Hands, the Island Food Pantry, and clergy resources.

“Every SNAP recipient will tell you the last 10 days of the month are the worst,” she said. That’s when cards start running low or entirely out. Serving Hands comes at just the right time. Every fourth Friday of the month, they set up shop at a designated location and give out bags of groceries to qualified clients.

Rachel said she sometimes uses the Island Food Pantry, but as a working professional on the Island, that can be uncomfortable.

“What does it say?” she said. “It’s awkward. It’s embarrassing.”

The most helpful Island resource for Rachel and her family is the clergy: the Beacon of Hope, First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, and Saint Andrew’s Church. Ministers and secretaries distribute Stop & Shop discount and gift cards to different Island families who need them. They also have benevolent funds that help with food costs, rent, and medical expenses. Rachel had a cancer scare early this spring, and the clergy helped her afford diagnostic testing.

“It’s an amazing resource,” Rachel said. “Even if you’re not into God or faith, it’s a way to get plugged into the community, and have a fellowship that cares.”

Community is part of the reason why she doesn’t believe moving off-Island is an option. “Leaving the Island and starting all over? That’d be traumatic for my family,” she said. “The Island is our support system. It’s not simple. You don’t just move off-Island.”

Rachel doesn’t look at her situation and wait or wish for food and housing to become cheaper. Instead, she works with what she has.

“It’s my responsibility to think outside the box, and create a higher income for myself,” she said. Over the summer, she sold half of her things she’s been saving. “I looked through a shed of old treasures hidden away for my future house. I asked myself, What am I saving this for? I could get $25 for this, $30 or $100 for that.” She used the money to send her kids to camp.

“If you’re capable and able, you need to think. What do you have? What skills can you offer? What can you turn into a dollar to make it work?”

Rachel revisited her vision. “I think access to quality food is a basic human right,” she said. “This idea of not wasting, and having a community sharing preserve kitchen is what this Island needs.”

Island Gleaners, another IGI program, works with farmers to capture excess quality produce and deliver it to those in need. This initiative aligns with Rachel’s vision.

“Right now, the gleaners have an overabundance of zucchini. Why don’t we have volunteers can them so they can be passed along, preserved, and eaten? That’s my dream. A preserved pantry of fresh produce that’s accessible and free for the community.”

That vision includes educational opportunities. “If I knew how to pickle, I’d be in heaven,” she said.

Rachel doesn’t believe she’ll be poor for the rest of her life. “It’s a struggle now, but I’m moving forward,” she said. “I know I’m moving in the right direction.”

She and her kids will continue to make it work, and maybe get a little stronger along the way.

“There are rich lessons to be learned,” Rachel said. “I hear my kids say things, and it surprises me. They’re resourceful. They’re problem solvers. They’re not takers. That’s pretty cool.”

8 COMMENTS

  1. It’s no secret that this is an expensive place to live. Those facing food insecurity issues would be best to find a more economical place to raise their family. That’s what parents have done since the beginning of time.

  2. $5 is not unreasonable for fresh, locally grown strawberries. Sounds like this woman doesn’t understand what goes into growing food if she thinks it’s realistic for local produce to be available to everyone for free.

  3. If she cant feed her family on food stamps and 2 food pantries shes doing something wrong. The people that run the food pantries are saints.

  4. The issue of overpriced fresh fruits and vegetables is all too real on the island. Today I saw limes for sale at Cronig’s for $1.19 each. Yesterday I bought limes at Ghost Island Farm for 50 cents apiece. If the Times could weekly publish the fresh fruit and vegetable prices from the different island markets and larger farms, like Stop & Shop, Reliable, Cronig’s, Vineyard Grocer, Morning Glory Farm, and Ghost Island, I have a feeling the “over-priced” prices would come down some. The unavailability of quality, reasonably priced produce is a serious problem in the inner cities, too, but for different reasons than the overpricing we see here on the island. The exhobitant prices for one lime on Martha’s Vineyard are, sorry to say, due to greed. No reason for one lime to cost so much in a year-round, large supermarket with 2 branches. Most people don’t have the time or gasoline to waste going to 2 or 3 stores or farm stands to get their groceries. Publishing price comparisons of fresh food would be an enormous benefit to the community. I understand the convenience stores and gourmet, seasonal markets charging the higher prices, but not the yearround large markets that unfairly and unreasonbly overprice.

  5. Rachel, you are not alone. The Greater Boston Food Bank reports 34% of those using Pantries earn too much to qualify for government-provided emergency food assistance. Many hard-working people cannot meet their needs. On this Island, we know that our housing cost and seasonal employment issues only amplify this crisis.

    Over the past year, the Island Food Pantry has made meeting healthy nutritional needs a priority. The Island Grown Initiative has been a huge factor in this effort, bringing us locally gleaned beets, corn, carrots, radishes, lettuces and tomatoes. We will soon be the recipient again of their processed venison as the hunting season begins. We have recently joined the Greater Boston Food Bank, giving us access to additional fresh produce and fruit – oranges, apples, bananas, peaches, grapes, plums, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, peppers and lettuce. Through them we are also able to offer a great variety of frozen poultry, meat, and fish, vegetables and fruit, along with a good selection of dairy products.

    Having healthy, fresh food on shelves in the Pantry does not help if someone doesn’t feel comfortable coming in. We know this discomfort is a reality for many. We have worked to make the pantry a place where neighbors come to meet and support each other. We (usually) have coffee with a little bite of something, some days we have a bit of music. Twice a month, a Public Health Nurse runs a Wellness Clinic. For kids, we have juice boxes or other snacks.

    Life’s circumstances change from year to year and season to season. When resources, for whatever reason, are short, the Island Food Pantry is here to support you. We know when things change, you will be back to help as a volunteer or a donor, as so many of our former shoppers do. But right now, if you like Rachel, are needing to make hard decisions about food vs other needs, you are welcome at the Island Food Pantry (corner of William & Church St, VH.)

    See you at the Pantry!
    Margaret Hannemann, Director
    Island Food Pantry

  6. I support your choice to do what you want. But if you choose to eat organic foods, and if you run out of money, that’s on you. Non-organics are fine; they’re cheap. Improved farming techniques have been one of the great successes of the last century.

    Me, I’d rather feed my kids some good normal food, than feed them insufficient organic food. Maybe you should consider that.

  7. Rachel, thank you for sharing your story. I want to make sure SNAP users are aware of the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which actually does allow access to free, local produce. SNAP users are automatically enrolled in HIP and receive a bonus of $40-$80 each month to be spent on fresh local fruits and veggies. These funds are accessed as an instant dollar-for-dollar match back on your SNAP card when produce is purchased. On Island, HIP can be utilized at the IGI Mobile Market, West Tisbury Farmers Market, Morning Glory Farm Stand, or the IGI Farm Hub.

    This means if you purchase $5 strawberries from the IGI Mobile Market, $5 is instantly returned on your SNAP card, resulting in $0 paid from the customer for the strawberries.

    I encourage any individual or family that could use help with accessing healthy, fresh food to speak with County SNAP Coordinator Esther Laiacona at 508-696-3844 or Lila Fischer of Island Health Care at 508-939-9358 and learn more about assistance programs. I am also happy to answer questions about the Mobile Market and other programs at sophie@igimv.org.

    Sophie Abrams Mazza
    Food Equity & Recovery Director, Island Grown Initiative

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