Summers soaked with shiny yachts and tourists by the thousands make it easy to overlook, or maybe not recognize at all, that there’s a significant number of hungry people living on Martha’s Vineyard.
Food insecurity is no small thing. It has many levels, layers, and most important, faces. They’re your neighbors and friends. They go to your church. They’re sitting next to your kids in school.
“These are the stories that need to be told,” Island Grown Initiative (IGI) director Rebecca Haag said in a conversation with The Times.
Over the next couple of weeks, with the help of local food equity groups like IGI, Serving Hands, the Island Food Pantry, and the Martha’s Vineyard Committee on Hunger, The Times will report on the faces of food insecurity, and the different levels of need.
“There are literally people who just can’t afford food, period,” Haag said. These people rely on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps), which is a federally funded monthly stipend qualified individuals can use to buy groceries. According to a study from February 2018, it was reported that at least 585 Islanders use SNAP, but based on national statistics, we know that only 30 percent of people eligible for SNAP sign up for the program.
“Using that estimate,” Haag said, “as many as 1,760 people on Island could be eligible for the program. If you assume a family size of three, then SNAP could be feeding close to 5,280 people, including children. This is about 33 percent of the estimated year-round population.”
Then there’s a level of lower-income families. Martha’s Vineyard has a 20 percent higher cost of living than the rest of the state, and Dukes County is one of the poorest counties in Massachusetts, based on income per person. This makes it harder for families to afford good food. “It’s not that they don’t want it,” Haag said. “It’s just priced too high.”
Last year, IGI received a state grant for a Mobile Farmers Market to bring down costs on fresh local produce for lower-income families. The Mobile Farmers Market accepts SNAP and HIP (Healthy Incentives Program), which further offsets the cost of produce.
There’s also the seasonality of this place. Having a seasonal economy means many jobs go away from late fall to early spring. Fishermen, construction workers, and waitresses rely on summer savings to get them through the winter. By January, a lot of that money is gone. As hard as people work, it’s hard to make it work.
Then there’s the aging population. “Our elders feel invisible and not connected to their community,” Haag said. “It’s really rural here, by and large. We need to make our aging population feel engaged.”
People live on fixed incomes in homes with high taxes. In schools, 40 percent of kids are enrolled in subsidized lunch programs, which raises the question, What do they do during summertime? The opioid epidemic hit the Island hard, putting a strain on families through loss of income, and high treatment and medical costs.
“There are also newly arrived immigrants, single moms with three kids, a family whose dad fell off a roof and can’t work for six months. There are people who thought, I’d never need a food pantry, but they need it,” Haag said. “By the grace of God, that could be us tomorrow.”
Life events make us all vulnerable to food insecurity, and the answer lies in the community.
“We don’t have to wait for a hurricane to come,” Haag said. “Every day of the week, we could work together as a community, as opposed to coming together after a disaster.”
IGI, along with other groups that address food insecurity, is working on raising awareness, reducing stigma, and binding together.
“Food is community, food is love, and food is nutrition,” Haag said. “It’s not just eating, and it’s not just statistics. What we really want to do is put a face to it.”
Keep an eye out for the first in a series of articles that tell the stories of food insecurity on Martha’s Vineyard.