Updated Nov. 14
John Chivers moved back to Martha’s Vineyard about two weeks ago. He’s lived here for eight years, but spent the past two months off-Island with his brother in Minnesota. Food insecurity is a complex issue, oftentimes linked to affordable housing, health problems, medical costs, and seasonal jobs. Chivers’ situation is also complicated, linked to all those same social determinants of health.
Chivers isn’t shy about his family’s situation. In 2011, his story was featured on Sesame Street in a special “Growing Hope Against Hunger.” The one-hour episode shed light on real issues among real families across the country. Shortly after its premiere, it was reported that Chivers found seasonal work with the VTA, and full-time employment with Vineyard Propane. He found year-round housing in Edgartown’s Morgan Woods apartments. Things were looking up for the single father with three young kids. Seven years later, we checked back in. What’s changed? Quite a bit.
In 2016, Chivers got in a work-related car accident that put him out of work for two years.
“I drove my co-worker’s truck, and it had a broken seat,” he said. “It slammed me on my back. I couldn’t walk. I needed back surgery.”
Unable to work, Chivers couldn’t keep up with rent, and was evicted from his Morgan Woods apartment.
“Being homeless with three kids … it sucks,” he said.
He lost custody of his children over the summer, and hasn’t seen them in three months.
“It’s a nightmare,” he said, “but I’m working through it.”
Chivers was released from workers’ compensation this past March, and started driving for Uber part-time. He hasn’t had a full-time job in over two years. He’s been living off savings, workers’ compensation, and the generosity of friends. “If it hadn’t been for friends’ support, I don’t know what I would have done,” he said.
Chivers found affordable winter housing up-Island in West Tisbury. So affordable, he compared it to charity. “These people could be making three times the monthly rent,” he said. “They’re very generous. I’m grateful for the grapevine.”
Now he’s focused on finding year-round housing suitable for three kids and a 4-year-old dog. We all know that’s just shy of a miracle around here. “Even my father, who’s a realtor, recommends clients not rent to someone like me,” Chivers said. “Dogs and kids? The rental situation here is not pretty.”
Chivers earned his real estate license over the summer, and he’s hoping to eventually capitalize on the Vineyard market.
“It’s a hard business to break into,” he said. “There’s lots of competition. I know I have to be realistic. It may take a year to make a sale. But I have to take my circumstances in stride, and overcome them. These are just circumstances,” Chivers said.
His children aren’t living with him, so food hasn’t been as much of an issue.
“The food pantry was great,” Chivers said. “But I haven’t been recently because I haven’t had the kids.”
Chivers doesn’t use food service resources unless he needs them.
“I don’t want to abuse it,” he said. ”When I was working, I felt it wasn’t fair to take food from the food pantry. Instead, I wanted to help. I volunteered when I could. I’ll go back again when the kids start coming back to my house.”
Between the Island Food Pantry, Serving Hands, clergy resources, and community suppers, Chivers said he’s felt supported in his community, despite the high costs he’s up against.
“All along, I’ve been very blessed with support and help,” Chivers said. “Especially from Betty Burton and [Serving Hands].”
“He is always ready to help,” Burton, coordinator of Serving Hands, said in an email to The Times.
I asked Chivers where he prefers to grocery shop on-Island.
“I love Reliable Market and Cronig’s, but I have to price carefully,” he said. “I find I go to Stop & Shop regularly for staples … It’s sort of a social event. I take my time going through the store, talking to everyone I see. It used to drive my kids nuts.”
Chivers loves to cook, and said it’s been a dream of his to open a restaurant here. “My mother was Cordon Bleu–trained. Some of my best memories are in the kitchen,” he said. He’s gotten creative with go-to recipes, utilizing what’s usually available at Serving Hands and the Island Food Pantry.
“Ground turkey is one of the least appealing meats to look at,” Chivers said. “But I take that ground turkey and I make an amazing dirty rice. I use brown rice and cook it in chicken broth … It’s just bangin’. It’s a recipe a lot of my friends use. And no one touches my hollandaise sauce. I’m like a fiend in the kitchen.”
He said Island food resources have provided healthy food options for him and his family over the years. “Especially when you link nutrition to brain development,” he said, “I think about how much better my children are from all of the wonderful meals they were able to eat because of the Food Bank. I can’t put a number on it because it’s that significant.”
As far as feeding his family goes, he said winter is harder than summer. “It’s just so hard to find a job in the winter,” Chivers said. “Summertime — it’s like, how many jobs are you working? If it’s not three, you’re not really hustling.”
Chivers came to the Island from Jacksonville, Fla.
“I want to say serendipity and divine providence led me here, but it really was because of a relative in West Tisbury,” he said. “I’m grateful to be here. It’s a great place. There’s kindness everywhere.”
He said moving off-Island, where the cost of living is cheaper, wouldn’t be a solution.
“It’d be especially tough for my children,” he said. “This has been their home for eight years. It’s a significant point in their evolution.”
As it all stands now, Chivers said he’s OK.
“I’m doing all right. But I’m hoping to be doing very well soon. It’s a process. The flip side of the coin is I’m a recipient of amazing generosity. I’ve been introduced to amazing people that help me stay on my feet with three kids. I’m very grateful, and I would have never known that level of gratitude if I wasn’t in such humbling circumstances.”
Some parts of this story have been updated after conflicting information was received regarding Chivers’ domestic situation. -Ed. This is part of an ongoing series about food insecurity on Martha’s Vineyard. Have a story to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.