There’s such a thing as a free lunch

Come for the food, stay for the fellowship.

Local farms and food providers donate their goods to Island Grown Initiative. The menu changes each day, depending on what food is available. — Caroline Brehman

Six-year-old Sawyer Grady took a small yellow muffin out of its homemade packaging. “The corn muffins here are really, really good,” he said. “The croutons are a little spicy, and the water is really fresh.”

Sawyer and his little brother Wyatt are regulars at Island Grown Initiative’s community lunch program. Their caretaker, Gina Sprague, takes them every week.

“Twice a week,” she said, leaning back on a bench in the shade at the Oak Bluffs library. “It gets them out of the house in the summer.”

Monday through Friday, from July 6 through August 17, Island Grown Initiative sets up shop at one of their three sites, and serves up a free lunch to anyone who wants it. And it’s not just any old lunch. We’re talking fresh fruits and vegetables, homemade bread and hummus, herb- and fruit-infused water, and a dynamic menu that changes every day.

“I like to cook food that makes people feel good,” Chef Jean Zdankowski said. “Today we have a cucumber tomato salad.”

On this August afternoon, in addition to that, they served Caesar salad with homemade croutons, pita bread with homemade hummus, orange slices, and Sawyer’s favorite — homemade corn muffins.

The community lunch program is in its second year serving free food to the Island community. IGI Community food education director Noli Taylor heads the program, working with fellow IGI employees and tons of volunteers. On Mondays and Wednesdays they’re at the Family Center in Vineyard Haven from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they’re at the West Tisbury library from 12 to 1 pm, and on Wednesdays and Fridays, they’re at the Oak Bluffs library from 12 to 1 pm. The program gets anywhere from 20 to 60 people at their sites every day.

Ava Castro, site supervisor, stood at the beginning of the serving line, followed by volunteers Donna Joyce, Robin Hughes, and Robin’s 12-year-old granddaughter, Lizzy Hughes. Kids, elders, MVTimes employees, and everyone in between lined up for a hearty serving of fresh and local food. Groups sat on blankets in the grass, on benches in the shade, and inside the library gazebo.

“I think this is an amazing community program,” Dianne Holt, longtime Menemsha resident, said. “It’s important to have safe places for children and adults. I get so lost in my projects, I forget to be around people. This gets me out.”

“We want to create a sense of community coming around food,” Taylor said. “All ages, backgrounds, ethnic groups, and classes. This is a cross-sectoral program.”

The program is part of a broader mission at IGI to address food equity. Over 40 percent of children are enrolled in a subsidized food program during the school year, and IGI wants to ensure they all have access to lunches during summer. IGI is also targeting the elder population.

Over the past year, community lunches have undergone a few changes. In 2017, the program was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is a great program, according to Taylor, but put IGI under stringent guidelines.

“There were restrictions with the where, who, and what we could serve,” Taylor said. Under USDA restrictions, IGI could only serve to people under 18, couldn’t serve up-Island, and could only serve cold lunches.

“Brazilian families traditionally eat hot meals in the middle of the day,” Taylor said. “We wanted to be able to serve meals that were culturally relevant for everyone. We knew we needed to do this a different way.”

In 2018, they found private funders — Cape and Islands United Way and the Couch Family Foundation. “That made it possible to reimagine what this program could be,” Taylor said.

“We were very lucky we got that grant,” Chef Zdankowski said. “We’re able to serve more freely, and we can give people choices. We found that by giving people choices, more is being eaten, and we have less waste. It’s been really big to have free rein this year.”

Looking toward next year, Taylor said, she and a group at IGI will evaluate the program and look at what’s needed. They’ll be trying to add sites to their schedule, one being a special needs program at Island schools.

“To me, this is a great example of community coming together to care for community,” Taylor said. “You really get a sense at each site that people care for each other. It’s a great thing that food can do.”


For more information on community lunches and Island Grown Initiative, visit