Feeding Island families

Family-to-Family holiday food distribution is coming up.


Betty Burton couldn’t be more passionate and determined to bring holiday food to those in need through the Family-to-Family Holiday Food Basket program, which she began in 2004. At that time, Burton, a member of the Vineyard Committee on Hunger and an Island Food Pantry volunteer, had started a small operation called the Serving Hands Food Distribution, which made food from the Greater Boston Food Bank, along with contributions from local grocery stores, available for free to those in need on the Vineyard.

For the Thanksgiving distribution that year, the Greater Boston Food Bank sent 20 turkeys, but 40 clients came to get food, hoping for a turkey for their traditional meal. Dead set against disappointing 20 clients, Burton reached out to the Greater Boston Food Bank and drove to Harwich on Cape Cod to pick up 20 more turkeys, and arranged to get them to the people who had missed out. Burton reflects, “After my first year with 20 turkeys in my car, I swear all the neighborhood dogs followed me for a couple of weeks,” Burton said. “And before I went off-Island to get the turkeys, I sat on Skiff Avenue and waited as 36 turkeys crossed in front of me!”

Burton’s experience inspired her and the Vineyard Committee on Hunger to create a program to ensure that all people on the Island could get the ingredients for a traditional meal at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. They have raised funds ever since by encouraging Island families who could afford to donate to help out another family in need.

From this small beginning, the Family-to-Family Holiday Food Basket program has evolved into an Island-wide community event very much in alignment with the spirit both of the holidays and those living on the Vineyard. The ingredients for a traditional meal are purchased from Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs. In addition, local farmers and stores donate food, along with food from the Greater Boston Food Bank. Just last month for Thanksgiving, more than 250 “baskets” were given, serving more than 600 people. A whopping 6,000 pounds-plus of food was distributed.

“This whole undertaking is a lot of work, and the community has come together to provide it,” Burton said. “The amazing thing about this program is how so many people want to get involved and help. The girl’s hockey team from MVRHS helps carry packages to cars. Elementary school students assist adult volunteers who sort and assemble the packages. Island merchants and faith organizations raise funds.

“We had the football team in their letter jackets the day before the Nantucket game for several years. Each year it seems different groups want to get involved. This year at the Christmas distribution on Dec. 21, young carolers from Beacon of Hope will add to the festivities.”

Of prime importance is how Burton and her crew of volunteers, many of whom have been involved in the program for more than 10 years, strive to make sure that every client is treated with dignity and respect as valued members of the community.

So how much does it cost to purchase a family a meal? Well, Burton confesses, “We have always told donors that $25 buys a meal, and thus the term ‘family-to-family.’ Of course, $25 no longer buys the meal, but $25 is a nice round number that can be easily multiplied, so that’s the amount we suggest. We also want everyone to feel like they can help; contributions of any amount are welcome. So many people depend on this food, not just for the holiday, because it lasts into the week.”

Looking at the list of ingredients in each holiday basket, you can see why each feeds a family for multiple days:

  • A turkey, chicken, or non-meat main protein (client’s choice)
  • bags of apples, oranges, carrots, potatoes, onions
  • Winter squash and sweet potatoes
  • Fresh spinach, fresh cranberries, and stuffing mix
  • Eggs and milk
  • Items donated from local farms including cheese and dairy
  • Assorted produce from the Greater Boston Food Bank

The program is available to those who meet federal income guidelines. Each client will be welcomed by a volunteer and asked to sign in, agreeing that they’re eligible. The system is based on good faith, but folks are encouraged to bring their food pantry card, Mass Health card, or EBT card as a way to demonstrate their eligibility.

Family to Family is one of those wonderful Vineyard programs where those who “give” “receive” as much as those who come for their bountiful baskets.

The distribution is on Friday, Dec. 21, from 1:30 to 3:30 pm at the First Baptist Church Parish House, 66 William St., Vineyard Haven. Volunteers will deliver baskets to those who are unable to come due to medical reasons.

Contributions can be made to Family to Family and mailed to the Vineyard Committee on Hunger at P.O. Box 4685, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, a registered 501(c) charity. Donations can also be made online through the Vineyard Committee on Hunger website at hungercommittee.org.