Meals of hope

Families helping families on Martha’s Vineyard.

Turkeys and bags of fresh produce are ready for the families. — Courtesy Family-to-Family program.

Updated Nov. 27

On Friday, Nov. 17, about 250 Island families walked out of the First Baptist Church parish house in Vineyard Haven with 55 pounds of food each for the holidays. Their bags were stuffed with turkey, apples, oranges, potatoes, onions, carrots, spinach, squash, eggs, and stuffing mix. The Family-to-Family meal distribution made it possible, and Vineyard Haven resident Betty Burton is behind it.

Family-to-Family was founded in 2004 as an extension of the Serving Hands Food Distribution Program, which distributes food to Island families from the Greater Boston Food Bank. In 2004, Serving Hands began giving out turkeys, but only had 20 of them to distribute.

“I looked down the line, and realized we’d run out halfway through,” Ms. Burton said in an interview with The Times. “I went off-Island and picked up 20 more turkeys. My car smelled like turkey for weeks.”

Ms. Burton realized she wanted to do more, and alongside a friend, she started Family-to-Family, which organizes packages to give to families in need during the holiday season.

In 2013, the rug was pulled out from under Esther Laiacona, but she was able to receive help through the Family-to-Family program.

“I had spent five years building a life for myself and my great-aunt,” Ms. Laiacona told The Times. “She was my best friend and a mother to me. And then all of a sudden she died.”

At the time, Ms. Laiacona lived in West Tisbury with her three children. She was grieving, and could barely eat for two months. She said the holidays were the hardest. Ms. Burton arrived at Ms. Laiacona’s house one afternoon and offered her a meal. She introduced her to the Family-to-Family program.

“Betty breathed life back into me,” Ms. Laiacona said. “That program is a lifeline.”

Ms. Laiacona said the program gave her hope, and it’s not just about the food. “They treat you with dignity,” she said. “When you have nothing, nowhere to live, nowhere to spend the holidays, Family-to-Family reminds you that somebody cares, and that you’re not alone.”

The program is a partnership, and many Island organizations have been involved since the start. They get a lot of their produce and turkeys from Reliable Market at a discounted price. They also receive produce and turkey donations from the Greater Boston Food Bank, the FARM Institute, Morning Glory Farm, and Island Grown Gleaners. It costs about $21,000 to fund the program, which provides meals for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter each year. The money comes through donations, fundraisers, and community generosity.

“Giving us money is one thing,” Ms. Burton said. “Getting the food out is another.” Island volunteers help distribute the 55-pound bags of food to the 250 families. At Friday’s distribution, the MVRHS girls ice hockey team helped carry bags to cars, and a fifth grade class from the Oak Bluffs School also volunteered.

“Ten percent of our population lives in poverty, but it’s even harder when you consider the cost of living is double,” Ms. Burton said.

In the 13 years that the program has been running, the number of holiday meal recipients has grown from 40 families to over 250. The program has also evolved in the quality of food they distribute. Ms. Burton said there is a bigger focus on providing fresh produce versus canned goods.

“People feel really generous this time of year,” Ms. Burton said. “We couldn’t do it without the money, the volunteering, and the weightlifting. Everybody makes it possible, and I couldn’t do it alone.”

“Families need to know there’s hope,” Ms. Laiacona said. “I know what it means to receive — it gives you energy. There’s something in the power of food.”

Tax-deductible donations to Family-to-Family can be made through the Vineyard Committee on Hunger at P.O. Box 4685, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.

Story updated to correct the year of Ms. Laiacona’s aunt’s passing, and their town of residence at the time.