When the early October nor’easter canceled ferry service two days in a row, the Island Food Pantry panicked.
“We usually get a mountain of produce from Elio [Silva] at Vineyard Grocer,” Island Food Pantry executive director Kayte Morris told The Times. “They go [off-Island] to pick up produce from their distributor every Friday, and they pick up our order too. When the boats weren’t running, we knew our produce wasn’t coming.”
And the Island Food Pantry had people to serve the next day. Open every Saturday from 10 am to noon, and Monday and Wednesday from 2 to 4 pm, the pantry provides free, nutritious food for Vineyard residents and families struggling with food insecurity. “Food insecurity refers to people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Morris said. “Studies show when people are food-insecure, it’s easier to make poor nutritional choices.”
And that’s why produce is such a must at the pantry. “We spend about 25 percent of our weekly food budget on just produce,” Morris said. “We had a bit of a panic when we found out the boats were all canceled.”
So Morris posted on Islanders Talk: “Are there any farms out there with extra food?” And the community was quick to respond.
“We had a full table — as full as it usually is,” Morris said, gesturing toward the red-and-white checkered tablecloth that blanketed a table in the center of the Food Pantry space in the basement of the Stone Church on 81 Williams St. in Vineyard Haven. The table boasted Morning Glory corn, leeks, and greens from Cronig’s, plus plenty more. “It was really beautiful,” Morris said.
And that’s the kind of colossal community support the pantry can rally. In its 38 years as a nonprofit, the Island Food Pantry has stood by its mission: No one should have to go hungry on Martha’s Vineyard. And in a community where 1 in every 11 people struggles with food insecurity, the task isn’t an easy one. But in the past year, the Island Food Pantry has undergone a number of changes to build on its goal to combat food insecurity on the Vineyard.
Nutritious food and variety
On the forefront of recent changes — the quality of food. “We’re really focused on fresh and frozen produce, and lean protein and dairy,” Morris said. About 80 percent of the pantry is considered nutritious by national nutrition standards, according to Morris. “We really want to be a choice pantry,” she added.
In addition to the produce delivered by Vineyard Grocer, the pantry also receives gleaned fruits and vegetables from Island Grown Initiative. Stocked shelves with canned goods, pasta, and other nonperishables line the pantry’s periphery — the majority of which come from the Greater Boston Food Bank, a partnership that began in May. “We run a box truck of about 4,000 pounds of food every week, and it’s loaded up by one volunteer,” Morris said of Michael Barnes, the Island Food Pantry’s lead volunteer. Every Tuesday or Wednesday morning, Barnes catches the 6 am, drives to New Bedford, and loads thousands of pounds of food onto the truck. Then he turns around and drives back. By 1 pm, Barnes and a group of six or so volunteers unload the truck. “It’s a wild operation,” Morris said. “None of this would happen without them.”
Community donations make up another 20 percent of the food that the pantry distributes. “It’s really important that we have a regular variety of really nutritious food that people can count on when they come in,” Morris said. “People know they can get pasta, frozen broccoli, or a carton of eggs, but it’s also nice to have that variety that community donations bring in.”
There’s even a section of treats stocked with pancakes, maple syrup, brownie mix, and cake mix. “We want to encourage healthy habits,” Morris said. “But life is also really hard, and treats are really good.”
Structure, stigma, and ‘who can use the pantry’
About a year ago, individuals needed a referral letter to utilize the Island Food Pantry. Now, all people have to do is show up, sign in, and fill out a registration form. “If you are on MassHealth, SNAP, Fuel Assistance, or are simply unable to afford groceries this month, we are here for you,” the Island Food Pantry website states.
The food pantry is also focused on inclusiveness and stigma reduction. “A lot of people who could be using the food pantry aren’t coming because they’re afraid of the stigma,” Morris said. “And the more barriers we create, the less service we’re doing for the community.” This past summer — their busiest in history — the pantry saw a number of seasonal workers with J-1 visas. “I think word got out that we’re available to them as well,” Morris said. “And frankly, I’m happy about that.”
Food pantry attendance has shot up over the past two years. In March 2019, the food pantry’s busiest month, the pantry saw 537 visits, compared with 389 in March 2018. August tends to be a ‘slower month,’ and this year, the pantry recorded 432 visits. “These numbers are going to keep going way, way up,” Morris said.
Pantry structure also changed. In the past, people picked up prepackaged bags of food: one with produce, one with nonperishable goods, and one with donations from the community. Now, individuals can fill up their own three bags, and if there are two people in a household, they can take four. “It scales up from there,” Morris said. Individuals are limited to one visit every two weeks, and a maximum of seven bags.
“We try to err on the side of generosity,” Morris said.
In addition to recent partnerships with Vineyard Grocer, the Greater Boston Food Bank, and Island Grown Initiative, the Island Food Pantry started working with the Friends of Family Planning in March.
“They have a fund called the monthly Tide Project, which we’re really excited about,” Morris said. Menstrual products aren’t covered by SNAP or food stamps, and under this program, individuals can pick up feminine products at the pantry. “It means families can spend that money on something else,” Morris said.
A full-time executive director
In June 2019, the Island Food Pantry hired Kayte Morris as its first full-time, paid, executive director. Prior to Morris, the nonprofit was run by volunteer coordinators, and most recently, Margaret Hannemann, who’s now the board president.
“Once our numbers started growing, we knew it wasn’t a job a volunteer could or should be doing,” Morris said.
With a full-time leader at the helm, the Island Food Pantry can begin to explore the root cause of food insecurity. “It’s a logistical problem,” Morris said. “And logistical problems are solved by money and resources.” While canned goods and grocery contributions are helpful, it’s monetary donations that carry more weight in the nonprofit world. “It’s an interesting challenge,” Morris said.
Prior to her role at the Island Food Pantry, Morris spent a number of years working for nonprofits in New York City and Boston. When she moved to the Island with her husband in September 2018, Morris recalled, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I remember telling my parents and anyone that asked, ‘I think I want to run a thing.’”
Nine months, 70 volunteers, and 1,700-plus pantry attendees later, Morris is in charge, and she’s in it for the long haul.