This is part of a series describing the faces of food insecurity on Martha’s Vineyard. The subject’s name in the following article has been changed in order to maintain privacy.
If single mother Rachel had bought back-to-school clothes and supplies for her kids this year, she wouldn’t have been able to afford food for the month.
“So no,” Rachel said. “My kids don’t have new backpacks and lunch boxes.”
Behind housing and childcare, Rachel said food is her third highest weekly expense. She pays particular attention to what her kids eat. She knows good health is linked to proper nutrition. “I want my kids eating as many healthy and organic vegetables as possible,” she said. “Whole grains. Almond milk. Less sugar. It costs a lot of money.”
Rachel makes it to the grocery store about two times a week. “A friend recently saw me in Stop & Shop,” she said. “She told me I don’t look happy. And it’s because I’m not. I’m stressed out. I go in there with a plan, and nothing’s on sale. For a bag of groceries to cost $100 … my heart just goes down to my feet every time.”
Rachel said Stop & Shop is hit-or-miss. She said produce goes bad quickly, and it’s rare that organic, healthy foods are on sale. She said the discount card at Cronig’s has been a saving grace, but generally not for for produce. She’s yet to find a reliable, affordable, on-Island spot to get fresh veggies.
“The issue is vegetables,” she said. “My philosophy of eating is that produce is most important.”
Island Grown Initiative’s (IGI) Mobile Market, a food truck stocked with locally grown fruits and vegetables, is just shy of Rachel’s dream.
“It’s great,” she said. “But it’s still expensive. $5 for a package of strawberries? That’s crazy.”
Rachel wants to live in a world where fresh local produce is free. “That’s my vision,” she said. “Maybe I’ll do it out of the back of my car one day.”
But that’s not to say Rachel doesn’t believe in working for what you have. “I went to college. I graduated. I found housing. I got a job. I did all these things that critics of poor people say we don’t do,” she said. “I serve. I vote. I pay my bills. I don’t buy lottery tickets. It’s all still such a struggle.”
Rachel has a 10-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. They receive SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps), and utilize Serving Hands, the Island Food Pantry, and clergy resources.
“Every SNAP recipient will tell you the last 10 days of the month are the worst,” she said. That’s when cards start running low or entirely out. Serving Hands comes at just the right time. Every fourth Friday of the month, they set up shop at a designated location and give out bags of groceries to qualified clients.
Rachel said she sometimes uses the Island Food Pantry, but as a working professional on the Island, that can be uncomfortable.
“What does it say?” she said. “It’s awkward. It’s embarrassing.”
The most helpful Island resource for Rachel and her family is the clergy: the Beacon of Hope, First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, and Saint Andrew’s Church. Ministers and secretaries distribute Stop & Shop discount and gift cards to different Island families who need them. They also have benevolent funds that help with food costs, rent, and medical expenses. Rachel had a cancer scare early this spring, and the clergy helped her afford diagnostic testing.
“It’s an amazing resource,” Rachel said. “Even if you’re not into God or faith, it’s a way to get plugged into the community, and have a fellowship that cares.”
Community is part of the reason why she doesn’t believe moving off-Island is an option. “Leaving the Island and starting all over? That’d be traumatic for my family,” she said. “The Island is our support system. It’s not simple. You don’t just move off-Island.”
Rachel doesn’t look at her situation and wait or wish for food and housing to become cheaper. Instead, she works with what she has.
“It’s my responsibility to think outside the box, and create a higher income for myself,” she said. Over the summer, she sold half of her things she’s been saving. “I looked through a shed of old treasures hidden away for my future house. I asked myself, What am I saving this for? I could get $25 for this, $30 or $100 for that.” She used the money to send her kids to camp.
“If you’re capable and able, you need to think. What do you have? What skills can you offer? What can you turn into a dollar to make it work?”
Rachel revisited her vision. “I think access to quality food is a basic human right,” she said. “This idea of not wasting, and having a community sharing preserve kitchen is what this Island needs.”
Island Gleaners, another IGI program, works with farmers to capture excess quality produce and deliver it to those in need. This initiative aligns with Rachel’s vision.
“Right now, the gleaners have an overabundance of zucchini. Why don’t we have volunteers can them so they can be passed along, preserved, and eaten? That’s my dream. A preserved pantry of fresh produce that’s accessible and free for the community.”
That vision includes educational opportunities. “If I knew how to pickle, I’d be in heaven,” she said.
Rachel doesn’t believe she’ll be poor for the rest of her life. “It’s a struggle now, but I’m moving forward,” she said. “I know I’m moving in the right direction.”
She and her kids will continue to make it work, and maybe get a little stronger along the way.
“There are rich lessons to be learned,” Rachel said. “I hear my kids say things, and it surprises me. They’re resourceful. They’re problem solvers. They’re not takers. That’s pretty cool.”