We were stunned to read in an email from Island Grown Initiative that there are now approximately 4,000 registered clients at the Island Food Pantry — nearly 20 percent of the year-round population, IGI states. This news came just as another report from the State House News Service revealed that residents of the commonwealth will lose about one-third of their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits on March 2. Those benefits had been increased since March 2020 to help fight the economic impacts of the pandemic. The state news agency wrote that “On average, the SNAP emergency allotment has added an additional $151 to a household’s normal monthly benefit of $335 in Massachusetts.”
Last week we wrote that the number of Islanders using IGI’s food pantry is almost double the number in 2022, and more than quadrupled from 2019. Many of those using the pantry are our seniors, not to mention families and individuals whose income is dependent on the tourist season. Winters can be tough here during better economic times, but they are particularly difficult when the whole country is experiencing inflation and rising food costs. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t paint a rosy picture with its food price outlook for 2023.
The USDA reports that food prices were up 10.1 percent in January 2023 compared to January 2022. They make the distinction as to whether food was purchased for consumption at home or food was purchased at a restaurant — either way, both costs are up. The cost of grocery purchases were 11.3 percent higher in January 2023 than the same time one year ago. Cost of food purchased at restaurants rose 8.2 percent in the same time period. As if this wasn’t bad news already, prices are predicted to climb even further in 2023, with food-at-home prices expected to increase 8.6 percent and restaurant prices by 8.3 percent.
We remember when we were growing up and our parents would occasionally serve breakfast for dinner; it’s likely today’s parents will think twice about that option. Retail egg prices increased 8.5 percent in January 2023 and reached 70.1 percent above January 2022 prices, due at least in part to an ongoing outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza. In fact, price increases are expected in everything from meats to dairy to the fats and oils used in cooking.
On an Island where we rely on tourism and on the sometimes unpredictable schedule of ferries to deliver goods year-round, this forecast is about as welcome as the March weather we’re experiencing.
IGI has built up a food equity program with a stocked food pantry housed at the Portuguese American Club, a prepared meals program to help supplement the groceries offered by the pantry, a gleaning program for unharvested produce from Island farms, and a mobile market, among other initiatives. They’re doing their best to combat hunger and to make sure healthy food is made available to all Islanders. We applaud their efforts and their ingenuity.
The Island Food Pantry carries non-perishable items as well as fresh produce, dairy products, and frozen meats and vegetables. Some folks need a little help occasionally and others rely on the pantry to help stock their cupboards regularly. The Island Food Pantry offers delivery for those who are home-bound, disabled, or have compromised immune systems. The pantry is open Monday, 2 to 4 pm, Wednesday, 1 to 6 pm, and Saturday, 10 am to 1 pm, and offers special hours for seniors from noon to 2 pm on Fridays. Shoppers may come once a week, once a month, or once a year — according to need.
The Vineyard Committee on Hunger also works to alleviate food insecurity on the Island, and their website reports that one in 10 families here needs help to make it through the winter. They hold monthly food distribution events at the First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven.
Meanwhile, there are ways the community can pitch in. Think about buying something extra when you’re at the grocery store and dropping it into the big purple box as you leave the store. They especially appreciate pasta, dried beans, coffee, tea, juice boxes, nut butters, personal items, and small containers of laundry detergent. You could organize a food drive at work or at school and the next time you have a celebration, ask guests to bring something for the food pantry instead of a gift.
Legislators are working to come up with ways to lessen the impact that will no doubt be felt when the national emergency and public health emergency declarations end on May 11. In our neck of the woods, we know our community will do its best to help each other.