Islanders come together to provide holiday dinners for families in need

Family to Family distributes food to more than 500 people.

Shay Bannister, right, added food to Clara Mikos’ bag last Friday during Family to Family’s holiday food distribution. —Cameron Machell

In the holiday spirit of giving, Family to Family provided more than 200 families with food at the First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven last Friday. The group distributes food to Islanders in need three times a year, around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Many of the people who use the service are elderly, people with disabilities, or unemployed.

At the church, food crowded the tables— bags of oranges and onions, cases of pork, turkey, and chicken — and the room buzzed with volunteers such as the fifth grade class from the Oak Bluffs School, who prepared the bags of food to be distributed.

Family to Family served over 500 individuals. The group is a part of Serving Hands, which distributes food monthly to Island residents in need of food assistance. Both services operate under the Vineyard Committee on Hunger, a nonprofit organization that seeks to alleviate hunger on the Island through self-help initiatives and raising awareness.

Before volunteers started packing the bags with food, one student asked Betty Burton, president of the Vineyard Committee on Hunger and director of Serving Hands and Family to Family, what inspired her to do this kind of work.

Ms. Burton explained that she once had to go to the food pantry for her family — her son was ill, and she and her husband were out of work — and that made her realize just how many people struggled with providing food for their families.

“At one point in my life many years ago, it was hard for me and my family,” Ms. Burton said. “We actually went to the food pantry, and there’s nothing to be ashamed about, that’s why I’m telling you. I’m not ashamed.”

Ms. Burton has made it one of her missions to feed Island residents who need food assistance. She told The Times that there are estimates that at least 25 percent of Island residents are struggling to provide food for themselves or their families, with another 25 percent who are “barely making it.”

The Vineyard Committee on Hunger operates solely with funds it raises, and donations from the Greater Boston Food Bank, Cronig’s Community Groceries program, local stores and farms, and organizations like Island Grown Initiative. The committee then distributes money or donations to their other organizations.

Distributions include two or three bags of groceries, with nonperishables, dairy, eggs, meat, and produce. It costs roughly $23,000 for Family to Family to distribute food for the three holidays alone.

“It’s really important for you to understand that this is our community, and not everyone in our community could have a Christmas dinner without it,” Ms. Burton told students.

As part of their “four weeks of giving,” a project that focuses on meaningful ways to give back to the community, students from Oak Bluffs worked with Family to Family to prepare food for people last Friday. Danielle Gremaux, a fifth grade teacher at the Oak Bluffs School, designed the project. She told The Times that students between Thanksgiving and Christmas have also donated clothing, worked with the Island Food Pantry, and will make holiday cards for residents at Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Oak Bluffs.

“We’re trying to build empathy in the community,” Ms. Gremaux said.

It’s that kind of empathy that allows Family to Family and Serving Hands to do their work. They provided ingredients for holiday meals in addition to what’s regularly distributed. On Friday, each bag contained a bag of oranges, apples, potatoes, onions, carrots, and spinach, as well as stuffing mix, a dozen eggs, and a can of pumpkin or cranberry sauce. People also had the option of a turkey or chicken.

In addition to the holiday meals, people received the regular Serving Hands distribution of food, which this month included pork donated from Beetlebung Farm, apples, and squash from Morning Glory Farm that was provided by the gleaning program at Island Grown Initiative, an organization that promotes the accessibility of the Island’s local food system. Other kinds of meat and produce were donated by the Greater Boston Food Bank, local stores, and farms. There was also a special table for parents, so children who normally have free lunches at school would have food at home.

All of this is made possible through donations and contributions from community members, and with the hard work of volunteers. Morning Glory Farm donates fresh food, gleaners of Island Grown Initiative harvest surplus food from Island farms, and the Farm Institute donates locally grown meat and produce.

Island Grown Schools (IGS), part of Island Grown Initiative, is a program that teaches students about the importance of garden-based learning, nutrition, and locally sourced food. The students from Oak Bluffs were also working in conjunction with IGS.

Members of the Daybreak Clubhouse, a part of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVSC) that supports people diagnosed with mental health conditions, are regular year-round participants who help sort and distribute food.

Jane Chandler of the Beach House Gift Shop in Vineyard Haven, with the support of other Tisbury business owners, organizes holiday raffles by merchants across the Island.

Community Groceries, organized by Jessica Roddy with the support of Cronig’s Market, provides fresh produce through donations from Cronig’s customers. In addition to Cronig’s, Reliable Market and Stop and Shop make regular donations. Jim’s Package Store in Oak Bluffs provides delivery service to people who cannot pick up the food themselves.

Ms. Burton said that because the cost of living on the Island is nearly double what it is off-Island, people on the Vineyard have a hard time qualifying for funds from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called Food Stamps, and Fuel Assistance, which helps people pay their heating bills.

According to the Department of Transitional Assistance, data from March 2016 showed that there were 576 people on the Vineyard using SNAP.

It’s these kinds of programs — along with having access to emergency food at the senior centers — that Ms. Burton believes are critical for the Island.

“Without SNAP, the Food Pantry, and Family to Family and Serving Hands, I don’t know how families would make it,” Ms. Burton said.