A Family-to-Family Thanksgiving
Once a year, most Vineyard families celebrate a holiday all but defined by a meal, but there are many on the Island who can't afford the essentials for a turkey dinner. Fortunately, thanks to the Family-to-Family Program, no one need go without. The Vineyard Committee on Hunger (VCOH) and Serving Hands Food Distribution has made it a mission to ensure that anyone in need can enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving feast.
Family-to-Family refers to the program's focus on community involvement. A Vineyard family or individual can make it possible for a family in need to have all the ingredients for a complete and wonderful holiday meal by donating $25 to the program. The program operates three times a year, providing meals at Christmas and Easter, as well as Thanksgiving. According to the program's coordinator, Betty Burton, those who receive the meals include the elderly, the sick, very young people and people with disabilities.
Ms. Burton coordinates both the Family-to-Family program and Serving Hands, an organization that distributes food provided by the Greater Boston Food Bank to Islanders in need. She stresses that many outside of Martha's Vineyard don't realize that hunger is an issue here. "You may think this is a wealthy island," she says, "but we're one of the poorest counties in the state. It doesn't take a lot to see that this is a struggling community."
Beginning in the early 70s, concerned local citizens began to recognize a community problem, and organized to help feed the Island's hungry. The Vineyard Committee on Hunger (VCOH) was founded in 1971, and began by handing out loaves of bread on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. The organization expanded, and now helps support a variety of organizations, including the Island Food Pantry and Serving Hands. Ms. Burton was the president of the VCOH from 2000 to 2005.
Although Serving Hands, which serves 80-100 local families monthly, receives the food they distribute through the state and federal government, the Island Food Pantry is fully supported by the community. Money collected from VCOH jars in local businesses, and fundraisers hosted by local organizations provide the funding.
The same idea of self-sufficiency applies to the Family-to-Family Program. Ms. Burton began the program in 2004 when she recognized both the demand, and the potential supply. She explains that in the holiday shipments from the Greater Boston Food Bank there were never enough turkeys for the large number of people who showed up at the Serving Hands location at the First Baptist Church Parish Hall in Vineyard Haven. At the same time, she noted that holiday generosity was prompting people to make donations of supplies for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, but there was no fair way to determine who would benefit.
Ms. Burton originated the plan of having families sponsor other families' holiday meals. Island farms such as Morning Glory and Whippoorwill contribute their produce. Donations ranging from $25 to several hundred dollars are collected, and all the necessary ingredients are purchased from Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs at a significant discount.
"Bob Pacheco is absolutely fabulous," Ms. Burton says of the owner of Reliable Market. "It's clearly a contribution of the heart. He always looks out for me to find the best deals. I can't imagine that they make any money on this."
When pressed to answer why he contributes to the program, Mr. Pacheco just says, "We do what we do."
The Thanksgiving and Christmas meals consist of a 12-pound turkey, stuffing, five pounds of potatoes, one pound of cranberry sauce, one dozen dinner rolls, two pounds of onions, one pound of carrots, three pounds of apples, fresh butternut squash, canned pumpkin and gravy - all made possible with a $25 donation.
Mr. Pacheco explains that his suppliers are willing to help out with lower prices because the off-Island companies also help their local food banks. "They're good guys," he says, "They help me out and I flip it around to help Betty."
Last year, 100 turkeys were ordered, but Ms. Burton reports that it wasn't enough. She wound up having to give out vouchers to the remaining families to take to Reliable Market. This year, she has ordered 120 turkeys but is concerned that she will run out again.
"In the last year the number of people has really skyrocketed," Ms. Burton says. "There's just not any work here in the winter. Everybody is hurting. That's why we're hoping that the people who can afford to help will really help a lot this year."
Thanksgiving Family-to-Family meals, distributed at the First Baptist Church Parish Hall on William Street in Vineyard Haven, Nov. 18 from 1:30-3 pm.
To donate to the Family-to-Family Program, send a check made out to the Vineyard Committee on Hunger (VCOH), Box 1874, Vineyard Haven, 02568 and note that it is for the Family-to-Family Program.
Gwyn McAllister is a regular contributor to The Times.