Food stamps pose a challenge for hundreds of Island residents

More than 584 Island households receive food stamps. Betty Burton wants to give residents a taste of living on $31.50 for a week.


Just after 12 noon on Good Friday, two hours before the doors of the First Baptist Church on the corner of Spring and William streets in Vineyard Haven were scheduled to open, a line of approximately 50 people of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities began to form. Inside, a makeshift food pantry equipped with 8,500 pounds of healthy holiday fixings including ham, ground turkey, bags of apples, oranges, carrots, onions, potatoes, canned pineapple and a dozen eggs, were being prepped by a team of volunteers.

Within an hour, the line outside nearly doubled. By 3 pm, when all was said and done, 378 people, including 67 seniors and 98 children, had filtered through the church doors. Once the food had run out, Betty Burton, coordinator of the Family to Family program and director of Serving Hands, a volunteer run program that provides free food to those in need, handed out gift cards to Reliable Market.

“People don’t realize that there are many people who are in need on this Island,” Ms. Burton said.

Ms. Burton believes Friday’s food distribution is indicative of a larger issue.

“There is an extreme lack of awareness when it comes to food insecurity both on and off Island,” Ms. Burton said.

To date, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, has benefitted more than 47 million Americans, 876,992 living in Massachusetts, and 692 people on Martha’s Vineyard.

To heighten awareness of the issue, Ms. Burton is organizing a food stamp challenge that will ask participants to live on a weekly food budget of $31.50, roughly $4.50 a day or $1.50 per meal from Monday May 5 to Friday, May 9, which equates to the average monthly benefit.

“We want to inform the general public about what food stamps are, and how much, or little, $31.50 per week can get you,” Ms. Burton said. “We also want to let Islanders know where those in need can get extra food.”

As the name of the program suggests, SNAP is meant to be a supplemental form of assistance and is not intended to be the only source of income for food. The average monthly benefit for one person is around $126.

“As anyone who will take the challenge will learn, it is nearly impossible to do and still consume a healthy diet,” Ms. Burton said. “So, in the first place we’re trying to raise awareness of the general issue, which concerns all Americans, not just people on Martha’s Vineyard.”

Ms. Burton said the food stamp challenge is a good measure of the difficulties faced by millions of low-income Americans. “Here on Martha’s Vineyard, we’re lucky to have a place like Serving Hands and the Food Pantry. It’s hard to imagine what would happen if we didn’t have those resources.”

Challenge rules

The food stamp challenge rules are relatively straight-forward. Participants can only spend the equivalent of the state’s average weekly SNAP allowance which in Massachusetts, breaks down to $31.50 per person for the week.

Participants can’t accept any outside food or eat restaurant meals or use anything already in their pantry or refrigerator.

“Living on a food stamp budget for just a week could never come close to duplicating the struggles encountered by low-income families week after week, month after month,” Ms. Burton said. “What it will do, we hope, is give you a new perspective about hunger in America and renewed energy to help transform it from how it is into how it should be.”

Participants are asked to keep all receipts of their purchases as well as keep a running log all of their food and beverage spending over the course of the week. Ms. Burton has set up a Facebook page where participants can blog about their experiences during the challenge.

“The blog is important so we can learn from one another,” Ms. Burton said. “What did you have to give up? Coffee? Did that make you crabby for a few days? Tell us about it!”

Ms. Burton said the challenge is meant as a learning experience for those who participate.

“I think people will learn that it is next to impossible to have healthy meals on food stamps,” Ms. Burton said. “It is particularly difficult if you have children or someone in the home who has a chronic illness that requires a healthy diet.  In fact, we all need the vitamins, minerals and protein we can get from lots of fruits, vegetables and protein items. It’s very hard to do that on a food stamp budget.”

Food stamps MV

According to the state Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), as of  March 1, 2014, a total of 584 households on Martha’s Vineyard received SNAP benefits. The breakdown in the DTA’s report included 282 individuals spread across 195 households in Tisbury; 207 people across 107 households in Edgartown; 158 individuals across 105 households in Oak Bluffs; and 45 individuals across 19 households in Chilmark/Aquinnah.

SNAP benefits are funded by the federal government and administered by the DTA. Eligible residents include families with children, as well as the elderly and disabled, the working poor with limited income, or those who are temporarily unemployed or underemployed.

The DTA processes SNAP applications and confirms eligibility which is determined by a calculation that takes family size, citizenship status, and household income into consideration.

SNAP recipients must be a resident of the state and have a limited income and savings. For example, a single person must have an annual household income of less than $21,660 and a current bank balance (savings and checking combined) under $2,001. For a family of four, the income limit is $44,100.

SNAP benefits are delivered to an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. At a grocery check-out counter, the EBT card works like a debit card. It is used to  provide two forms of public assistance, SNAP funding and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

According to the DTA, participation in the SNAP program has increased dramatically over the past five years. In 2009, there were 211 SNAP households on Island. By 2013, the number had more than doubled to 466 households.

For more information or to participate in the food stamp challenge, email Betty Burton at

Food Assistance Programs

What: Serving Hands Food Distribution

Where: The First Baptist Church Parish House at the corner of William Street and Spring Streets, Vineyard Haven.

Serving Hands is a volunteer-run program of the Vineyard Committee on Hunger that provides free food — usually several bags of groceries — once a month to those in need.Food is distributed on the Friday following the fourth Thursday of the month from 2 to 3 pm, year-round.

What: Family-to-Family Holiday Meals

Where: First Baptist Church Parish House, Vineyard Haven

Family-to-Family is a program that provides the ingredients for a traditional holiday meal including turkey, dressing, squash, eggs, and bags of apples, oranges, onions, and carrots to families in need the Friday before Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

What: Island Food Pantry

Where: The United Methodist Church of Martha’s Vineyard/ Christ Mission Life Center (“The Stone Church”)

Open six months a year, clients receive three bags of groceries, twice a month from October 15 to April 15.  Open Monday, Wednesday, Friday 2–4 pm.

On the firstand 14th day of the month, they receive a $25 Stop & Shop card.

What: Community Suppers

Where: Old Whaling Church, Chilmark Community Church, West Tisbury Congregational Church, Saint Augustine’s Catholic Church, Grace Episcopal Church, Trinity Methodist Church, Federated Church.

A warm dinner is available seven nights a week from January through March.

What: Lunches at the senior centers

Where: Howes House, Tisbury Senior Center, Island Elderly Housing, Oak Bluffs Council on Aging

A nutritious lunch is provided at all three down-Island senior centers and Howes House in West Tisbury during the week.  A $2 contribution is welcome, but seniors can also receive it for free.