Since 2004, Betty Burton and the Vineyard Committee on Hunger have been putting together holiday baskets filled with delicious food for Islanders who are struggling to provide a special meal for their family.
The food distribution program, known as Family to Family, is part of the Serving Hands food distribution service, and its goal is to garner local donations to purchase local food for local families.
“It all started a little more than 15 years ago. People would come by to the Food Pantry and would drop off pies, or a turkey and other things — we didn’t know what to do with all of it,” Burton, who heads the benevolent holiday initiative, told The Times. “We decided that instead of asking for food donations, we would ask for money, because we couldn’t do much with just the individual items.”
In order to make the distribution service equitable, Burton said, each holiday basket (or bag) is filled with the same foods and ingredients.
Every Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas, Burton and her crew — usually consisting of around 20 or 30 volunteers — set up at the First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven and prepare to get food out to hungry families.
According to Burton, those who volunteer each year for any of the food support programs are always willing to show their dedication and love for their community by putting in the hard work necessary to make the distribution possible.
She noted how the late June Manning was a shining example of a volunteer who selflessly gave her time to Serving Hands and the VCOH whenever they needed assistance. “It was hard for June more recently to come and help, and sometimes, when she would write saying she couldn’t come, we still knew she was thinking about her fellow community members, and was mindful that people were taking the initiative,” Burton said.
On Dec. 17, at 1:30 pm, those who need food or are struggling to provide for themselves or their families can head to St. Augustine’s Church in Vineyard Haven and hop in line.
Volunteer drivers will go back and forth between the staging area at St. Augustine’s and the storage and processing area at the First Baptist Church to provide a steady stream of food.
Burton stressed that all the food provided during the distribution is courtesy of Island food organizations, businesses, and generous private donors who want to support their fellow community members. “It’s really quite incredible to see — this food is all from our neighbors, our neighbors wanting to make sure everyone has a nice meal for the holidays,” Burton said.
Each year, several farms, benevolent food organizations, restaurants, and many community members pitch in to make it all possible.
For Burton, it’s all about the quality of the food that’s put into each holiday basket — Family to Family always aims to include a high volume of fresh produce from local farms, and any fresh meat, such as turkeys and chickens, that they can get their hands on.
“Fresh produce is so important to a good diet, and it’s usually not easy to find or afford for many people who live here,” Burton said.
Not only does Serving Hands compile a list of folks who need their holiday baskets delivered, but a number of volunteer drivers deliver baskets to the disabled and the elderly, including residents of the Woodside and Hillside Village senior housing.
During this year’s distribution for Thanksgiving, Burton said, more than 200 families received baskets, and the amount of cheer and positivity that resulted in the event still brings a smile to her face. “It really does make me so happy to see the difference this makes in people’s lives. You can’t walk out of that church during the holidays without a smile on your face,” Burton said. “It was so great to see all this food going out to our community to take care of people. I think that’s what living on Martha’s Vineyard is all about.”
A significant amount of the food that is given out to Islanders is purchased from Reliable Market at a discounted price, such as small turkeys, stuffing mix, apples, oranges, pumpkin pie mix, fresh cranberries, and fresh spinach.
Burton noted the generosity of the Pachico family, who own Reliable, and added that they always think of creative and fun ways to make the gift baskets special and wholesome.
“There are always all kinds of wonderful things in the baskets, and it’s all thanks to the people and organizations that contribute every time,” Burton said. “We are a very lucky community, but the only way we can continue to offer these kinds of things is through donations — we are a small organization that is just trying to keep it all going.”
Visit the Vineyard Committee on Hunger website at bit.ly/VCOHunger for more information, or to volunteer. Folks can send monetary donations to Family to Family at P.O. Box 4685, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, or call Burton at 508-693-3667.