Island Food Pantry users have more than doubled

Financial hardship spurred on by COVID affects Islanders, and the pantry aims to support those it can.

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The number of people who used the Island Food Pantry, which operates under Island Grown Initiative (IGI) and is located at the P.A. Club in Oak Bluffs, has more than doubled since 2019.

“There are a couple of things going on. I think people got thrown off their economic security pad during COVID. Other people lost jobs, or got sick and couldn’t work for a while, so I think that things haven’t fully recovered for folks who may have experienced some economic challenges,” Island Grown Initiative executive director Rebecca Haag told the Times. 

According to the numbers Haag provided, the pantry served 750 people through February 2019. The Food Pantry served 1,796 people during the same time period in 2022. Haag said around 34 percent of clients use the delivery service the pantry offers to those who cannot make it to the physical location to shop. Island Food Pantry operations manager Sharon Brown told the Times around 142 senior citizens use the delivery service every two weeks. 

“We’re a little bit higher than what we normally would have expected at this time of the year. But because of the prices of things and the housing issue, there are still people who are coming more frequently than they really want to, but they have to,” Brown said. 

The rising cost of living on Martha’s Vineyard is constricting the already tight food budgets of low-income individuals and families, according to Haag. She listed four main groups of people who come to the pantry, including low-income folks. One is families who have to deal with a family emergency, loss of income, or other issues, and will visit the pantry “episodically based on the conditions life gives them.” The other is the Island’s elderly population, many of whom have limited sources of income. 

“These elders are living on very low, fixed Social Security incomes or whatever, and now suddenly the prices have gone up 20 percent,” Haag said

The final group she mentioned were the “new arrivals,” more specifically the seasonal workers the Island economy heavily relies on. Haag said the workers who come to live on the Island during the summer season may face higher-than-expected rent, or living situations where multiple people have to share limited resources. 

IGI is working to meet the needs of those on Martha’s Vineyard who want help, but there are a couple of problems it faces for the pantry. One is that the amount of food they receive from the Greater Boston Food Bank has decreased. Haag said the Food Pantry originally received 8,000 pounds of food per week from the food bank for free or at low cost. However, this has been cut to 6,500 pounds of food per week. Haag said the food bank cited supply-chain issues and a lack of workers in its warehouses to get the food shipments to where they are needed. IGI is currently getting the food from other sources to fill the missing 1,500 pounds of food per week, but there is a higher price to pay. 

“We estimate that we’ll be more than 50 percent over our food budget this year,” Haag said. “We have to make up for the food we were getting for the pantry. We’re also seeing a rise in demand, and then we’re also trying to make the food that’s available more nutrition-rich so that people aren’t just eating empty carbs. We want to make sure people are eating good, healthy foods.”

Brown also expressed the need for accessible and nutritious food, which is why the pantry has healthy, easy-to-prepare foods. According to Brown, easing accessibility is important because many people who visit the panty are in difficult situations, such as living in their cars or at campgrounds. 

To make the pantry more hospitable, there are other opportunities for clients available. Brown said the pantry provides other products, such as toilet paper, diapers, and cat food, since IGI recognizes that if someone is food-insecure, there are probably other difficulties in their lives. Different Island organizations, such as Martha’s Vineyard Community Services and Island Health Care, are also invited to provide information or services to people when available. Brown said these “community days” usually happen once a month, on Mondays, from April to September. 

However, there are also some people who do not come to the food pantry because of the stigma that may surround those who use its services. “These are not people sitting around idly. These are workers,” Haag said regarding the potential stigma. “These people who come are our neighbors. They’re probably people we see around town, whose kids may go to school with our kids.”

Other roadblocks include the remote locations of some elders, and the language barrier in the Brazilian population, according to Haag. 

Haag said the pantry has been reaching out to reluctant people by bringing supplies to locations where trust has already been established, such as Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and the Councils on Aging. 

“Those are the people we’re working hard to outreach to and make sure we can basically support them and find them,” Haag told the Times. “The people who come to us, we feel like we can identify what their needs are, we can serve them.”

When asked if the client numbers will go down over time, Haag said it may take a while: “I think [current numbers] are going to stay relatively steady, and I think a lot of it has to do with the cost of housing. You know, that’s the other trend that came out of COVID: people moving to the Vineyard to make it their permanent homes and taking a lot of places that were rented over the winter out of the market,” she said. “At the same time, Airbnbs started happening a couple of years ago, and that started to divert people to want to do it more week to week or month to month. With that trend and the tightness of the housing market, I actually don’t see this changing.”

The Island Food Pantry is open on Monday from 2 pm to 4 pm, Wednesday from 1 pm to 6 pm, and Saturday from 10 am to 1 pm. For more information, visit the IGI website at bit.ly/3N2flMi, or contact the pantry at 508-693-4764 or info@islandfoodpantry.org. For those who may have difficulty going to the pantry, visit bit.ly/3M1Rdt6 to learn more about the preorder and delivery system. 

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