The Island Food Pantry – helping our neighbors

Rosie Herman, Violet Cabot, and Leah Littlefield (left to right) form a bag brigade to move food along the sidewalk and into the food pantry.Bag brigade members — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Hunger is an unfortunate fact of life for many on our Island. Fortunately, the Island Food Pantry will open for the season on Monday, October 18 at 2 pm at the Stone Church on William Street in Vineyard Haven.

Started in 1981 by the Reverend Helen Oliver, the Island Food Pantry does all it can to offer help for those who need it. Coordinated since 1996 by Armen Hanjian, a retired United Methodist Minister who lives in Oak Bluffs, this all-volunteer program is an extraordinary community effort.

Thanks to the generosity of The Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center (MVHC) the Island Food Pantry received a large donation of groceries just in time for its opening. Each year the Hebrew Center has a food drive for the Island Food Pantry coinciding with the High Holy Days. Bags donated by Cronig’s are given out during services and are returned to the Hebrew Center filled with non-perishable goods.

Stormy weather on Wednesday, October 8 didn’t stop students of the MVHC Religious School from loading 113 bags of groceries into two vans and a truck and transporting them to the food pantry. Nicole Cabot, director of the Religious School, has been involved in this project for 15 years. While the students were having a snack and getting ready, Ms. Cabot talked about the importance of the children’s involvement in the food drive. “I don’t think the need hits home until they do this work,” she said, adding that giving back is an important part of Judaism.

Loading the bags was work but many hands made it fun. Soon, everyone was ready for the short trip to the food pantry, where Mr. Hanjian was waiting for the children with a welcoming smile and warm embrace. After everything was unloaded, he gently asked the children to guess how long they thought the food would last. They guessed a month, maybe two. His answer surprised everyone. “About two weeks.”

Handling this amount of food and learning how much more is needed sent a powerful message to the students and the adults with them. Later Mr. Hanjian recalculated and realized these 113 bags actually would last even less time, “about an average day of distribution.” Fortunately the quiet involvement of individuals, schools, businesses, clubs, and religious communities ensures that the shelves are kept full and there is food for those who need it.

The important behind-the-scenes work of the food pantry has recently been documented by Josh Bernstein, aged 14, of Chilmark, in a film he created as a Mitzvah project. Made with the help of his parents and many others, the 28-minute film tells the story of the food pantry and highlights some of the many local businesses and dedicated people that are helping. “The film is Josh’s effort to do something lasting for this community,” his mother, Jill Bernstein, said.

The first public viewing of this film will be at 1 pm this Sunday, October 17 at the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven. A benefit for the food pantry, the event is open to the public, with admission being at least one non-perishable food item. The enduring family movie “Mary Poppins” will follow.

The Island Food Pantry will be open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 2 to 4 pm. Each week people who have established a need for assistance will receive a bag of produce, a bag of staples — such as soup, pasta, peanut butter, tuna, and cereal, and a third bag of miscellaneous goods of their own choosing. Once a month they will be given a $25 Stop and Shop card to further supplement their needs.

The food pantry will be in operation from mid October until mid April. Last year, there were 2,600 visits to the pantry and Mr. Hanjian expects this year will be similar. “Nationally we are told that one out of eight families need food support. It’s probably not very different here on the Island.”

For some people, it is hard to acknowledge that they need the kind of help the food pantry provides. “If you or anyone else knows people who need the pantry, please encourage them to come,” Mr. Hanjian said. “It can be a difficult step to take. Most of the 510 people who came last year needed that initial encouragement.”


How to help our neighbors

1. Attend the film screening October 17 at 1 pm at the Capawock Theatre with your family and bring groceries for the Island Food Pantry

2. Sign up for the Crop Walk on Sunday, Oct. 27, which starts at 2 pm at St. Augustine’s Church, or sponsor someone who is walking.

3. Volunteer at the food pantry. Call 508-693-4764 for information.

4. Donate food. Purple collection boxes marked Island Food Pantry are located at markets and houses of worship across the Island.

5. Provide funds to the Island Food Pantry. Send a check to Island Food Pantry, PO Box 1874, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.