Here when you need it: Island Food Pantry
It is a cold, grey Wednesday afternoon in November, and the Island Food Pantry is quietly buzzing with activity. Marcia Randol, a 10-year volunteer, is carrying bags of groceries for an elderly man, while Bill Bennett, another longtime volunteer, helps a young woman fill out paperwork. A mother and her daughter select items from a table with miscellaneous donated food. Two women bundled in coats and scarves sit in folding chairs patiently waiting their turn. Grocery bags filled with staple food items are lined up neatly on the counter of the Old Stone Church kitchen.
The Island Food Pantry, originally the Food Cupboard, was founded in 1981 by Helen Oliver, former pastor of Christ United Methodist. The not-for-profit is now under the care of coordinator Armen Hanjian, a retired United Methodist minister, and a staff of 50 devoted volunteers. They're officially open for business mid-October until mid-April, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons from 2 to 4 pm, but even after they close for the season, "people can call us if they're in a jam," reassures Holly Nadler, a 10-year volunteer. The program receives no government support and is primarily sustained by food and money donations from individuals, churches, local farms, and businesses.
Photos by Ralph Stewart
They're busy today, and will unfortunately get busier, as the weather gets colder and Martha's Vineyard continues to feel the effects of the nationwide financial crisis. According to the USDA, food prices rose four percent last year and a higher increase is predicted this year. This was the largest food cost increase in 17 years, and as unemployment rates rise, many individuals and families are left wondering whether to heat or eat.
According to the 2006 Martha's Vineyard Commission study, the cost of living is 57 percent higher than on the mainland and the average salary is 20 percent lower. People are worried.
"This year the stress level seems higher to me. From the minute we opened our doors this year, there's been a degree of worry and sadness," says Ms. Nadler. "But," she adds brightly, "we'll get through it. This is a good Island." Even so, asking for help takes courage, notes volunteer Ali Berlow, "especially in such a small community where everyone knows everyone."
The Pantry staff has observed an increase in the amount of food donations this year. They surmise that the economic crisis is bringing out the best in people. However, the holiday season is usually a time of increased giving. They fear the later winter months when the food supply dwindles while local residents are still in need of assistance.
"I've read that there has been a statewide increase in activity at food pantries," says Alan Ganapol, who started out stocking shelves three years ago, and now orders all the basic food supplies that are delivered and pre-packed into grocery bags. He praises Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs and Wainer & Sons in New Bedford, the Food Pantry's regular purveyors of the basic goods like potatoes, onions, carrots, pasta, and canned foods. When Mr. Ganapol first told off-Island friends about his new volunteer gig, he was surprised by their reactions. "They thought this was an Island of zillionaires. Most Vineyarders know that's not the case." When so many Island residents depend on seasonal work, and minimum wage is $8, Mr. Bennett adds, "We all can be and might be clients some day - we know that."
"When feeding yourself or your family is an issue," says Mr. Hanjian, "the anxiety and fear increase. There is the concern - 'Is this the bottom? Are things going to get harder yet?' When you're in that state you're unable to function effectively. You can't think of much else." According to the USDA, starvation seldom occurs in this country, but millions of Americans live in a state of "food insecurity" and under-nutrition. The Food Research and Action Center finds that even occasional food insecurity has harmful effects on learning, development, productivity, and health.
Mr. Hanjian is troubled that there is still a lingering misperception that people take advantage of the Food Pantry and that these unfounded prejudices have stopped some in the community from giving. "Over half of the people who come for assistance do it only a few times a season. Rarely do people try to 'work the system'. We are an emergency supplement and we can't afford to support 100 percent of people's needs. People have to piece together a patchwork of support."
Ms. Randol agrees, "I'm disturbed when I hear that people don't give because they feel that the only poverty on Martha's Vineyard is the Brazilian community. These same people know nothing about the Pantry. We have a huge cross-section; elderly, veterans, people struggling with medical problems, families with young children, and yes, Brazilians, who also work hard here just to stay alive. You can't scapegoat people."
There are guidelines. Anyone can come in for food assistance once. Repeat clients need to provide identification (a driver's license or passport) and a letter of reference from a social agency, employer, or clergy person verifying the need for assistance. "People come in when there is a need, but then they get back on their feet and come back as volunteers or donors. That's really gratifying. There is a lot of sensitivity toward helping one another," says Mr. Bennett.
Lee Magnarelli, who has been donating groceries to the Pantry for years, says she plans to, "bring more stuff, more often."
In addition to practical general supplies such as toilet paper, the Food Pantry needs basics like cereal, canned soup, applesauce, and spaghetti sauce - all those staples that support a family's health. Unfortunately, too often food donations come in with expired dates, or infested with mealy worms.
Ms. Randol urges mindfulness when donating. "Please consider donating low sodium and low sugar foods. We have many elderly clients that are diabetic or hypertensive." She gets frustrated when donors have clearly cleaned out their cupboards and put expired or half-used goods in the donation boxes. Ideally, the Pantry would like to offer more fresh or frozen meats and vegetables. She notes how appreciative clients are when a hunter donates venison, or a farm brings produce or eggs. Ms. Randol adds, "We need people not to forget about us after the holidays. January, February, March, those are brutal months, and we've had times when we've run low on food."
Hunger is often well concealed, but no less shameful and debilitating. It's a nationwide problem, and Martha's Vineyard, considered by many an idyllic summer playground, is not exempt.
Ms. Randol sums it up as she restocks the food table, "What is so important for me working here is that I'm not allowed to close my eyes. I hope that we can all realize that we can't close our eyes to our neighbor's suffering. This is our community."
Island food Pantry at Christ United Methodist Church at 89 William St., Vineyard Haven, operates from mid-October through mid-April. It's open Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays, from 2 to 4 pm. Contact 508-693-4764, or islandfoodpantry.org.
Vineyard Haven resident Elissa Lash is regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.