Feeding the future

M.V. Boys and Girls Club embarks on a comprehensive food service mission.


There are a few imperatives in early childhood development that allow kids to lead the most rich, fulfilling, and healthy lives possible. Having a safe space to learn and trusted adults to confide in are just a couple. But what happens if children doesn’t get the vital nutrition they need? What are the early benefits of eating a balanced diet, and understanding the power of food? 

The Martha’s Vineyard Boys and Girls Club has always held the goal of providing holistic support to Island children and their families, and now are embarking on a powerful mission to provide kids with the tools they need to connect more with what they eat. 

“There is a lot of talk about the social and emotional health of kids. When we talk about being a club that provides a safe and secure space for kids, safety doesn’t just mean the facility is up to par — it’s also a safe space for kids emotionally and socially,” club executive director Dhakir Warren told The Times during a visit to the facility. “A big part of that emotional health is kids knowing that they have a place where they are going to be able to eat. You can’t send a kid to school who’s hungry and expect them to focus.”

With this awareness, and with the overarching goal of providing food security for all Island kids, Warren and his team are expanding the existing food service program at the club with a number of new, innovative offerings. The first thing visitors will notice when they enter the facility is the “Grab and Go” refrigerator, with a sign reading “Please take a grab-and-go meal, they are for all to enjoy.” The day’s featured meal was roast chicken with creamed corn and broccoli.

“That option for kids is always there,” Warren explained. “I think having that constantly available shows kids that there is always a healthy meal for them.” Not only do the rotating lunch offerings feature diverse and high-quality ingredients, but there are other unprepared items that kids can take home to their families. Fresh and frozen vegetables, breakfast sausage, breads, and easy-make lasagna were displayed in the refrigerator. 

Warren noted that the club serves a very diverse population of kids and families, so the food offerings need to reflect that diversity. “There are definitely cultural affinities toward certain dishes, but one thing we want to do is get folks to step outside of what they know, and explore healthy new ingredients,” Warren said. 

With the core belief that there can’t be enough organizations on the Island providing food support, Warren said the club is creating its own food pantry called the Blue Door Pantry, where kids and families can always come to pick up whatever they need. Additionally, Warren plans on having young club members help out at the pantry and learn more about food, while also connecting with their community. “Because we are able to directly interact with our target audience, which is kids and families, we know more deeply their needs,” Warren said. “The club acts as a touchpoint for the family unit, and the pantry can feed that whole unit.”

Whether it’s transportation, location, time, or money, barriers to food access are ever-present in the community. As part of a brand-new and improved facility the club is planning to construct in the coming years, Warren described visions of a large room where the current Blue Door Pantry will be relocated, along with a high-tech commercial kitchen, and a small container farm capable of producing several tons of fresh produce all year long. The food that kids grow as part of a hands-on project-based education program will be used to supplement the pantry, along with daily food menus for club members.

The existing kitchen at the club, run by food coordinator Maria Moreira, has already churned out more than 62,000 meals for kids and families, all made by Moreira, a few dedicated staff, and a couple of ovens and hot plates. “I’ve been working at the club for about five years, but I started this program after Dhakir came,” Moreira said. When Warren arrived, he shared his big vision for the club, but the food program had to walk before it could run.

It all started with a few healthy snacks provided to kids throughout the day, but quickly turned to healthy and diverse lunch offerings, informed by the kids who would ultimately enjoy them. Moreira explained how kids come to culinary class at the club to learn about foods from around the world, try new flavors, and get passionate about making and eating good food. “We have one program here where we cook food from around the world. If you say to kids ‘this stroganoff is from Russia,’ or ‘this vegetable is from Brazil,’ we can open their minds to new ideas, and they get excited,” Moreira said. 

For Moreira, the most important part of her job is showing kids that they can make delicious and healthy food, and encouraging them to try new things whenever possible. “A few years ago we had 18 kids in one culinary class, and 16 of them were boys — they absolutely loved cooking,” Moreira said. “Especially in Brazilian culture, the men don’t cook a lot. But this idea is changing, and we want to tell kids, You can do this.”

Chef Jenny DeVivo is also working with the club to help facilitate the existing food service program, as progress is made on the significant undertaking to greatly expand offerings and the available volume of food. One element of the program DeVivo is proud of is the food rescue initiative that takes near-to-expiring food from grocery stores and farms and turns it into delicious meals. “Just by rescuing this perfectly good food from grocery stores and farms and processing it, we have been able to reduce Maria’s food budget and increase food production,” DeVivo explained. “When I came to the table, it was already an incredible partnership with farmers, fishermen, and food purveyors. What I learned from my 10 years in institutional food service is that if you connect with these people, these relationships allow us to support each other in a mutually beneficial way.” The food rescue program saw almost 8,000 pounds of food saved from the waste bin in November alone, according to DeVivo. 

Additionally, surplus food from farms and grocery stores that would normally be thrown away goes right to the club. Just recently, DeVivo filled up her car with overripe bananas and brought them to the club so that Moreira could turn the bananas into delicious banana bread. “Some squash that isn’t being sold because it’s surplus: We take that, freeze it, and mix it in with our spaghetti sauce,” DeVivo said. “That bumps up the volume of our spaghetti sauce, and saves perfectly good food from being thrown out.” 

Another exciting development for the club is a newly acquired mobile classroom that doubles as a large walk-in refrigerator. Recently, the president of Organic Valley (a major farmer-owned organic food brand) donated a mini school bus that is being retrofitted to transport and store a large amount of food, and also shuttle kids back and forth to farms, grocery stores, or wherever the program takes them. “Inside the bus is a mobile classroom where we will take kids directly to the source. They can meet the farmers, meet the fishermen — that is an impetus for change and a catalyst for inspiration,” DeVivo said. The bus will also serve as a mobile food pantry that will meet the needs of those members who need an additional level of access. 

“I love connecting these really important dots for kids and even parents. Where does the food come from, how did it get to their plate?” DeVivo said. “So at the same time as they are enjoying a healthy meal, they also know the journey it took.”