Food Pantry handles record demand this winter
Last Friday morning, a trio of Oak Bluffs School second-graders tumbled out of a yellow school bus on Church Street in Vineyard Haven, clutching paper shopping bags filled with food.
They joined a line of adults also carrying the necessities of life from a collection of trucks and cars that filled the parking spots around the Christ United Methodist Church at the corner of William Street.
Every February, Oak Bluffs School kids hold a weeklong food drive at the school, and then deliver what they've collected to the food pantry. They are part of an Island-wide network of businesses, organizations, schools, institutions and individuals that contribute food and money to the pantry, a nonprofit organization founded in 1981 as an outreach program of the Christ United Methodist Church and now affiliated with the Vineyard Committee on Hunger.
The food pantry, in the basement of the church, provides emergency food supplies to nearly 500 Island families.
The kids were welcome. A bit more than five percent of the Island's year-round population visited the food pantry last year, and the numbers indicate that 2010 is also difficult for Island residents, according to pantry officials.
Last year the pantry averaged 81 visits a week, up 20 percent from 2008. This year, by early February, the food pantry has had more than 70 clients on each of three days.
More clients, more food
Armen Hanjian has been the food pantry's coordinator since 1995. A retired Methodist pastor from northern New Jersey, Mr. Hanjian is a spare, quick man, brusque in his speech and movement. As he oversaw the delivery and storage of the food, he looked at the several hundred shopping bags filling a basement storage space at the old stone church as the kids nestled themselves happily among them for a photo.
"Client visits are up about one-third from last year's 2,050," Mr. Hanjian said, gesturing to the bags. "All this represents just about the 210 bags we distributed on one day, February 1, when we had a record 73 clients. We have more clients, but we also have more food and cash donations. We're managing pretty well. We just do more juggling than we're used to."
The pantry's promotional and explanatory flyer has a four-point message: "Winter on Martha's Vineyard is rough. Jobs are scarce. Too frequently, medical and utility bills go up. Kids go hungry."
"We are an emergency food provider," Mr. Hanjian said. "People can sign up for food stamps comparatively easily. We serve emergencies."
According to the 2009 food pantry annual report, 53 percent of clients said they were employed. About 40 percent of clients come only once or twice a winter. Thirty-eight percent come six times or more a winter. The sharp increase in numbers comes in spite of fewer visits from what observers suspect is a declining Brazilian population, to whom the food pantry specifically reaches out, Mr. Hanjian noted.
Qualified clients can come to the pantry twice monthly, every other week, between November and April. Clients qualify by providing a letter on the letterhead stationery of an employer or social agency vouching for their need. They provide identification and a home address and receive one three-bag distribution per address.
Volunteers check in clients between 2 and 4 pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. The check-in process is carried out with respect and kindness by the 58 volunteers, many of whom have long tenure and have developed an easy relationship with client parents and children, the elderly, and all those struggling to make ends meet.
Clients receive three 20- to 25-pound bags of food. One bag includes fresh fruit, usually including oranges, bananas and apples, potatoes and onions. A second bag includes basic foods such as canned soup, pasta, and canned tuna fish. The third bag is a miscellany of client-selected items, including coffee, sugar, and toilet paper. The food items mix changes twice monthly. Each client also receives a monthly $25 chit for Stop and Shop, generally used for meat and dairy products. Money for the Stop and Shop chit is raised through cash donations.
Despite demand, Mr. Hanjian is not worried about his basic supplies. The pantry buys nearly $60,000 packaged and canned food in bulk, and that remains on hand throughout the food pantry season.
Fruits, vegetables, and miscellaneous items go quickly, however, and that's what gets restocked through donations on a continuing basis from drop-offs and food pantry pickups of donated food from containers at stores and public buildings throughout the Island.
Kim Araujo, accompanying her Oak Bluffs School son Aidan on Friday, credits second grade teachers Ellen Berube, Beth Glynn, and Heidi Ganser with the ongoing program. "They do this every year," she said.
"They use it also to help the kids develop math skills," Mr. Hanjian said.
Other schools also collect food. The 42-classroom competitive high school drive in March will reward the classroom competitor with the most donations with a free breakfast in the cafeteria.
"That was principal Steve Nixon's idea," Mr. Hanjian said. "Our greatest need now is for people to keep doing what they've been doing. The Island has been very faithful to the food pantry."