More Martha’s Vineyarders need food support than ever before

Mike Perkalis from Reliable Market delivers potatoes to the Family to Family distribution cneter at the First Baptist Church Parish House. — Photo by Betty Burton

The Island’s Family to Family holiday meal distribution program began as a sweet little community idea eight years ago, program coordinator Betty Burton recalled this week. Now it’s a critical part of feeding families at Thanksgiving and Christmas — and it’s broke, she said.

“Eight years ago, we got a donation of 40 turkeys from the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB),” said Ms. Burton who also runs the Serving Hands program, which distributes food monthly from the GBFB larder. “Unfortunately we had 60 clients at the time. How do you decide who gets the turkeys?”

So Family to Family was launched, calling on Island families to donate $25 to cover the cost of a Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey and fixings. So far, so good. “We even had a little money left over for a few years which we put away, just in case,” Ms. Burton said.

Then the economy tanked. “Thank God we saved that money,” Ms. Burton said, noting that 60 Island families in 2003 became 186 this holiday season. In the meantime the program vacuumed up all the rainy day funds.

“To continue the program, we need an increase in the level of donations from the Island community,” Ms. Burton said. While many Island families continue to donate generously, with a few donors feeding as many as 40 families at Thanksgiving and Christmas, the funds received have been outstripped by demand. The dual-holiday distribution now costs $5,000 per event and the cost of a meal basket has risen to $28 or $29, she said.

“The bottom line is that we are getting fewer donations this year and our need is up,” Ms. Burton said. We really need to break even to keep this very necessary program going. The folks that come in for the Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets are in great need. Often their refrigerators are almost empty, so not only does this supply a holiday meal but, in fact, it puts food in their refrigerators,” she said.

Family to Family is completely community supported through donations of cash and food and help from the Vineyard Committee on Hunger and The Center for Living. Ms. Burton was quick to point out that Island businesses have stepped up to the plate, so to speak, including Reliable Market, which offers a co-op buying discount and Island food producers such as Grey Barn, Whippoorwill, and Morning Glory farms and the Vineyard Gleaners, with fresh vegetables.

As a grassroots program, without affiliation to government or state support, Ms. Burton is aware that Family to Family does not have the public awareness, history or the size of The Island Food Pantry which is also completely supported by the community, or of Meals on Wheels and the monthly Serving Hands food programs, which both source food from the GBFB.

“Everyone knows about The Red Stocking Fund, for example,” Ms. Burton said. “Family to Family goes hand in hand with it but we haven’t been around as long. Our distribution is not just a meal, but also provides food for refrigerators during the holiday season. I’d say 100 percent of our clients also go to The Food Pantry. This is something extra.”

And while Family to Family may be the most fragile of Island food support programs for those reasons, its empty treasury may be a harbinger of things to come, both on the Island and nationally. A veteran of Food Pantry volunteering and the administrator of Serving Hands, Ms. Burton has a clear view of what’s coming as a result of Congress’s recent budget-balancing which reduced food aid programs as part of its fiscally righteous posturing.

“Tim Madden, our state representative, was here volunteering last week, filling those bags, and he mentioned that even Nantucket has initiated a food distribution program,” she said.

“We’ve had more people than ever before for Thanksgiving and Christmas for Family to Family distributions,” Ms. Burton said. “Serving Hands receives a once a month food shipment for distribution from the Greater Boston Food Bank, which is looking at cuts of 70 percent in January.

The Mass. Emergency Food Program is supported by the U.S. Drug Administration (USDA) and 70 percent of that is going away.”

Indeed, national news stories on food support programs since the budget-balancing cuts were announced are full of alarms about the country’s ability to feed a growing number of Americans – estimated at 14 percent of the population. An estimated 24 percent of U.S. families now receive some form of food support.

The numbers are swelled by an increasing number of middle-class families. “These are people with master’s degrees whose jobs have been taken away. These are people who on paper have done everything right,” said one New York state food distribution agent, noting that support for providing food is being put on communities.

For Family to Family, at least, the burden is manageable. The cost of an average stocking stuffer gift from the average Island family would fund the program for 400 Island residents. And as the ever-pragmatic Ms. Burton said, “We don’t pay our bills until January so there is still plenty of time to contribute.”

To donate to the Family to Family Program, send a check made out to the Vineyard Committee on Hunger (VCOH), Box 4685, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568 and note that it is to be used for the Family to Family Program.