Thousands of Islanders use free food programs

Food pantries see unprecedented demand as high prices and other economic pressures continue.


Every weekday afternoon, Jenny Devivo stocks the Martha’s Vineyard Boys and Girls Club two-year-old free food pantry with fresh produce, meats, and ready-made meals for needy families. 

As a line forms out the door, she hands out farm donations, rescued food, discounted Costco and Ocean State Job Lot products, and 200 meals a day to students in an afterschool program and their families. 

“The majority of our year-round residents are struggling not only to find a house but also to put food on their table,” said Devivo, who also runs a larger pantry at the Edgartown-based club twice a week. 

Martha’s Vineyard is often known off-Island as an affluent summer colony, a playground for the rich and famous who live in ever-larger houses on vast beachfront properties. But few year-round residents and workers live in that gilded reality.

“It’s hard to spend $600 a week at Stop & Shop,” said one of the club’s 350 members, who is trying to feed a single-income household. She asked to remain anonymous because she’d rather not have her name in the paper. The free food “tremendously helps,” she said. 

“There’s always been a lot of low-income people on the Vineyard that struggle in the wintertime, but there’s more people on the Vineyard now, and I think that’s why the need has gone up,” she added.

Indeed, one in four year-round Islanders — or 5,200 out of 20,530 — now are registered with the Island Grown Initiative (IGI) free food pantry, the largest on the Island.

Not everyone registered uses the IGI pantry regularly, but the number of those who did jumped fourfold in five years — from 678 individuals in January 2019 to 2,753 this past January. The numbers continue to grow, and in May, 106 new people registered with the pantry.

Seniors and children make up one-third of those served. Many of the others are working adults or day laborers struggling to make ends meet. 

Through their prepared food program, IGI handed out 2,304 frozen meals in 2018. That shot up to 40,797 — a 1,670 percent increase — in 2022. To address the growing demand, the team plans to make and distribute 60,000 meals this year.

“Is our hope that those numbers decrease? Absolutely,” Gail Arnold, board chair for IGI, said. “We don’t want people to have to use the pantry. We would love to be out of business in that way. I don’t think anybody in the food-equity world would say they think they’ll be out of business anytime soon.”

Island experts say there’s no one explanation for the increase. But given inflation, and the high price of food, as well as other economic pressures since the start of the pandemic, a growing number of families struggle to get through the week without this extra food from one of the half-dozen or so food banks on the Island. 

“If you have food insecurity, you can go to five or six different places, and you would not be turned away, which is quite frankly fabulous, but unfortunate when you think about our paradise Island, that that’s the way it is,” Arnold said. 

Based at the Portuguese-American Club in Oak Bluffs, the IGI food pantry is open 2 pm to 4 pm Mondays, 1 pm to 6 pm Wednesdays, 10 am to noon Saturdays, and from noon to 2 pm on Fridays for seniors. Fourteen drivers deliver food and dry goods to shut-ins on Thursdays.

Food equity director for IGI Merrick Carreiro and about half a dozen volunteers unpack roughly 7,000 pounds of food from the Greater Boston Food Bank, which they get for free or at a reduced cost, each Tuesday, and the first Monday of every month. 

She also stocks fridges and shelves with fruit and vegetables gleaned from IGI’s 40-acre farm, chicken and eggs donated by Slough Farm, and loaves of bread from Grey Barn and Iggy’s Bread. 

To keep up with increased demand, the food pantry will move to a new facility on 114 Dukes County Ave. in the early part of August. The new pantry has larger fridges and freezers, more storage space to backstock food should a ferry get canceled, and a drive-through system to make pickups easier. Seniors will still be able to shop in person.

Though the new project has been largely sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Bank Charitable Foundation, the CARES Act, a federal stimulus bill intended to counter economic fallout from the pandemic, ends this month for IGI. They received just under $2 million over the past three years, and now hope to increase fundraising efforts to replace that funding.

“The Island needs to sustain the people that come to the food pantry, because they work at the services that run this place,” Carreiro said.

To be sure, the increased demand on-Island mirrors growing challenges across the state. The Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB), recently reported that nearly one in three, or 1.9 million, Massachusetts adults faced food shortages at the end of 2023, an increase of 100,000 from the year before. The food bank cited “exorbitant costs of living, increased grocery prices, and end of pandemic-era supports” for the figures.

Other programs on the Island have also seen a dramatic increase in demand.

Serving Hands, a program run under the Vineyard Committee on Hunger, delivers food to 80 people on the Island, and in the summer, as the Island gets busier, that number will increase by 20 to 40 people, Alicia Nicholson, president of the committee, said.

“The number has gone up since the pandemic, especially in winter months,” she said. “There’s a lot more need.”

In January and February this year, Food Baskets MV, also known as Good Shepherd Parish Food Pantry, saw 200 people a day walk through their door. 

“Those 200 people represent a family of up to six people,” Sarah Steigelman, outreach distributor for the program, said.

A few years ago, they saw a maximum of 70 to 75 clients every Tuesday and alternate Saturdays, when the pantry is open. 

Grace Church in Vineyard Haven began its community supper program, which runs every Friday from November to the end of March, at least 30 years ago, Heather Raveling, parish administrator, said.

The program uses church funds to make hot meals from Stop & Shop, Cash and Carry, and other food sources. It also receives donations.

Two winters ago, it provided meals to 60 to 80 people, Raveling said. Last year, that number was closer to 85 to 95 people, and this past winter, it peaked at 150 people.

To help meet the demand, the church plans to start a new program this fall. They’ll have a stocked vegan community refrigerator outside the parish house that will be open 24 hours a day. 

Marjorie Peirce, outreach coordinator for the community suppers program at the First Congregational West Tisbury Church, has also seen an increase in patrons. Before the pandemic, it organized sit-down dinners in the church for 80 people. But now they serve closer to 150 people, with pickups or drop-offs. 

There are too many people to organize a sit-down meal in the parish house, she said. “We get some people of the older population who can’t cook anymore for themselves to people who are unhoused,” Peirce said.

The age group that the Council on Aging’s food pantry serves has expanded from mostly seniors to many seasonal workers in Edgartown, according to Lyndsay Famariss, the council’s director.

“The depth of need is a lot deeper. It’s not just a box of cereal and rice. They really need soup to nuts,” Famariss said. 

They receive a shipment of food from GBFB once a month, and it’s “often wiped out soon after the delivery comes,” she added.

Two years ago, the West Tisbury library began its Community Freedge program (nicknamed to describe the fridge of free food). Just inside the front door, a refrigerator and shelves are stocked with donated produce, canned goods, dairy products, personal care items, and cleaning supplies. They are available to everyone.

Donations from individuals, food rescued from Cronig’s Market, produce from Slough Farm, and prepared frozen meals from IGI keep the fridge full every week. Alexandra Pratt, director of the library, said the program feeds more than 250 people a week.

“It’s a real community effort,” Pratt said. “It takes a village to feed a village.”

More people utilize the library’s fridge every year, but Pratt said that may be a result of increased awareness and exposure of the resource, as well as the fact that as “housing gets more and more expensive, we’re seeing more and more people struggling to feed themselves and their families.”

From a “hangry” child at storytime who needs a pick-me-up snack to someone who lives in their car, Pratt often hears that the Freedge is a lifeline, she said.

In January, Pratt told legislators and library stakeholders on Cape Cod at the annual CLAMS Legislative Library Day about “a woman who lost her housing she had had for years when it was sold and turned into a weekly rental, and [she] was camping in the State Forest.”

“She came to us in tears, saying without the food available through the library, she wasn’t sure how she would’ve kept herself fed,” Pratt added.


  1. Everything subsidized increases. People love free stuff, especially food. I’d have more compassion for these programs if they were income based, but that’s not the case. At the end of the day if you can’t support yourself in one of the most expensive places to live in the country common sense would dictate that you move along to another community where you can be self sufficient.

    • John– Would you like the agencies involved to require an income
      tax return and photo ID to get free groceries ? You know, a few years ago,
      an astoundingly ignorant person who has never actually purchased
      groceries in his whole privileged life claimed you needed a photo ID to
      BUY groceries. But since they are free, i guess it’s ok to not
      question them, right ?
      And who do you think is funding this program ?
      You ???? I am sure you have never donated a dime to any
      of these compassionate organizations. Why do you care who gets
      what ? Do you want them to close the thrift store also?
      After all, if you can’t afford the most expensive and
      trendy fashions, go somewhere else.
      if at the end of the day if I want to donate money to these
      organizations and you want to donate to a wanna be dictator
      that will throw poor people out of the country, we both have
      that freedom.
      And, you are free to sign up and get all the free food they have to
      offer. It’s not just for poor people you know..
      Take the lead from Jeff Brazos– He took the $4000 earned income credit
      intended for poor families with children over multiple years, even though he is a
      many times over billionaire. And was worth $18 BILLION at the time–
      if Bezos can feed at the “poor troth”, so can you.
      If I have to get over paying for one of the world’s richest persons
      getting a tax credit to help him out raising his kids,
      you can get over whatever sanctimonious attitude you have about
      people getting free food that private citizens and businesses are
      pay for.

      • Read the story. Two Million dollars from the CARES act. I don’t know about you but I work and pay taxes, so yes, I paid towards this program.

        • They aren’t taxpayer funded.
          Per the article: “The program uses church funds to make hot meals from Stop & Shop, Cash and Carry, and other food sources. It also receives donations.” From the WT library director: “Donations from individuals, food rescued from Cronig’s Market, produce from Slough Farm, and prepared frozen meals from IGI keep the fridge full every week.”

          As for moving off island, how will communities that rely on volunteer fire and rescue teams fare if those folks have to move off-island? What about the public school teachers that can’t find housing? The Cape Cod housing situation is not much better than the island. I guess I’ll have to wait for my firefighter/EMT to respond from Rochester, Brockton, or elsewhere in MA when my house is burning down or in an emergency health situation. (Hope it happens when the SSA is running!)

          According to this recent article ( the median price of a home on the island is a whopping 2.3 million. “A family would need a yearly income of $650,00 to buy a $2.3 million house, assuming a 20 percent down payment of $460,000 and $16,000 in monthly carrying charges from a mortgage, taxes, and insurance.

        • John– i read the story. I work and i pay taxes. The
          difference between you and I is that I don’t think
          people should go hungry, and I don’t think they should
          have to answer any questions about why they are
          using a food bank. As far as the extraordinary amount of
          money it takes to feed a few thousand people– Well, we
          differ on this one also. I’m all for 2 million dollars of
          “my” taxpayer money feeding hungry people.
          And, I accepted the fact that from 2017
          to 2021 600,00 dollars
          of “my” taxpayer money went towards proving
          one golf outing for a Orange slob who promised us
          that he would never play golf while he was president,
          just to put it in perspective.
          For a total of somewhere around $150 million
          over his presidency.
          And where do you think that
          “other community” is where no one is in need of any assistance?

    • Do you object to lifeguards, too? If you can’t swim your way out an undertow, medical emergency, or shark attack, don’t go in the water? Did you read that in someone’s bible?

      I agree that less griping about island prices is called for. I used to post running tallies of food prices at different markets. Now I have moved to NYC where food prices, even in most restaurants, is less than the Vineyard.

      When 10 year olds have to listen all day everyday to their parents’ whining, it’s time to move the family somewhere where kids can be kids and don’t have to listen to their parents entitlements to the point where even 3rd graders expect something for nothing simply because they’re islanders.

      But please, feed the hungry. Always. Cook for them if you can. “These programs” are a blessing. Most people want to take care of themselves but sometimes find themselves in circumstances (old age, disability, illness) where they cannot.

        • Elders do too, along with disabled individuals, and those that through no fault of their own need a helping hand from time to time.

    • John, “move along to another community where you can be self sufficient” reminds me of Hoovervilles where people were asked to “move along” continuously. Straight out of “The Grapes of Wrath.”

    • John, what should be done with the native born who can not make it here?
      What has been done with the native that can not make it where you can from?

      • I couldn’t make it when I was young in my hometown so I moved to less desirable places that I could afford. I worked really hard and was able to move here several decades ago. I’ve certainly had difficult times in my life but never considered having others feed me or my family. To this day I can’t afford the shiny new SUV’s I see lined up at the food pantry each Saturday.

        • John– Yeah, I’m old enough to remember when Ronald
          Reagan told stories about the “welfare cadillacs”.
          But I’m sure you know who Neil Bortz is.
          He world certainly say that you have a case of
          “wealth envy”. But don’t kid yourself, if you live here,
          you can afford a shiny new SUV. And if you really
          can’t, common sense would dictate that you move along to another community where you can–if you really want one.

        • If I give a dollar to the food pantry and find out that $.90 went to help people truly in need and $.10 went to bilkers , I would shake my head at the bilkers, but ultimately know that the majority of people coming need the help and I would be OK with the greater good. It’s very rare that we will ever find anything in life that passes a strict purity test.

  2. I could not disagree more.
    Income-based food assistance programs reinforces negative stereotypes and stigmas associated with seeking help. It may discourage individuals from accessing much-needed support due to fear of judgment or shame. Not unlike being required to have a drivers license to vote.
    In my observation and personal experience…Poverty is a complex issue influenced by various factors beyond just income, such as ones health, disabilities, family responsibilities, and systemic barriers. We …. You… each of us are a step away from a catastrophic life event which can lead to a spiral into poverty. Simply moving to a cheaper place may not be a feasible solution for many individuals due to these complexities. Related— For many individuals, their communities provide important social support networks, access to services, and a sense of belonging. Moving to a different location solely for economic reasons can disrupt these important connections and support systems.
    What I hope…rather than suggest people just get the car and drive someplace else… is the Island continues the efforts to address systemic issues such as access to affordable housing and healthcare, particularly for those with addiction disorders.
    What is a benediction is to be here on this Island and surrounded by not just natural beauty but sharing it with people of a generous, compassionate spirit like Jenny Devivo, Gail Arnold, the IGI folks and all those kind hearted who donate time and resources on behalf of those in need.

    • Great comment Kenneth– But don’t expect those who criticize a
      food pantry to understand the complexities of poverty.
      Well fed people are a benefit to society in all sorts of ways,
      better health results in cheaper medical insurance rates,
      healthily people are more productive in the work environment
      and less likely to spread social discourse. I was more than once
      called an antisemite because I quoted Bob Marley’s insightful
      line that “A hungry man is an angry man”
      But– some people don’t see it that way. They think if
      you are poor it’s because you’re lazy.
      Thanks for taking the time to post such an
      articulate comment.

  3. And then, John, who’s going to do all the work that keeps this expensive Island of ours going year round? Who would stock the shelves in the grocery stores, who would do the laundry and clean the rooms at the hospital, who would be the servers at the Island restaurant? I could go on and on, but you get the point.
    I agree perhaps that people you might call transients and who have no roots on the Island might consider moving to a more affordable place. But I’ve seen people who have lived here for decades and have contributed a lot to the Island Community leave the Island due to employment or housing issues. Is that what you have in mind?

  4. I think these programs are wonderful. I donate to them when I can to support those who benefit from them, and I am a reassured to know that if I ever fall upon hard times, they are there for me as well. I have a hard time imagining that if Jesus Christ were to return to our earth today, he would take offense at these programs.

    • Julian– I think that if Jesus returned today, the very people
      who claim to admire him the most would declare him a
      traitorous liberal and crucify him again.

      • It’s already happening, Don. I’ve read reports of individuals lecturing their pastors that the sermon is too woke because they are citing Jesus’ teachings.

        By the way, riddle me this. How do you explain a racist Christian? It should be an oxymoron. Ditto for any other major religion, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. that promises to be a path to peace.

        • Julian, I can only say that 3 people can read the same
          passage and come up with 3 different explanations
          of what it means. And everyone can cherry pick certain
          aspects of anything and use that as an example to justify
          whatever it is they are trying to “prove”.
          But I think most of the time racist Christians ( and others) only
          pretend to be religious for social reasons. Their biases
          and bigotry will never be internally challenged by their so called
          religious beliefs. Of course there is also the concept of cognitive
          dissonance. I believe even a sincerely devout Christian can
          claim that “there are no innocent Palestinians” and stand silently
          by while being complicit to clear genocide. Even defending it in
          some cases.
          But back to Jesus showing up on earth ;
          Most white Christians would not believe it was actually
          him because he is/was black or brown.

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