Basting a golden turkey, the smell of pumpkin pie baking and some cranberry sauce are all part of the Thanksgiving holiday for most Island families. But for others, the day can bring disappointment rather than thanks, particularly when one’s grocery list has to be supplemented by free community food resources available just a few times a month.
To help out, Betty Burton began organizing the Family-to-Family program eight years ago as a way to provide neighbors who face financial hardship with a traditional holiday meal. One year, when there were only 20 Thanksgiving turkeys available to serve around 40 families in need, Ms. Burton decided to find a way to increase the giving. Through a $25 donation to Family-to-Family, all the ingredients for a holiday meal can be purchased and distributed in time for Thanksgiving.
Ms. Burton said she has watched the numbers of families in need rise over the years.
“Last fall we offered 179 meals for about 400 people. Since 2008 it’s gotten very tough. Each year the numbers go up.”
Ms. Burton also organizes a food donation at Christmas and in the spring around Easter time, but she doesn’t accomplish all of this alone, she said. She has a crew of dedicated volunteers and she receives help from the community, too. The basics of the meals are supplied by Bob Pacheco and his family at Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs. Donations of fresh produce come from local farm markets. Mr. Pacheco relies on his suppliers who keep the price of the groceries for the meal under cost.
“My major supplier is Associated Grocers of New England based in New Hampshire,” Mr. Pacheco said. “They’re good people so they jumped on board with it.”
Reliable Market will provide 170 turkeys, potatoes, carrots, apples, onions, stuffing mix, pumpkin pie mix, oranges, cranberry sauce and a dozen eggs, which will be distributed at the First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven on Nov. 16 from 2 to 4 p.m.
Mr. Pacheco said that people are generous during the holidays and his store helps with all three holiday meals for Family-to-Family.
“By Easter people here are really strapped and the need then is just as great as it is now, if not greater,” he said.
During the year Ms. Burton makes the rounds at community organizations and places of worship talking about hunger on the Island. Family-to-Family is just one aspect of a network of food programs on the Island under the umbrella of the Vineyard Committee On Hunger. The Island Food Pantry serves people twice a month and Serving Hands, which Ms. Burton also coordinates, provides food from the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) on the fourth Friday of every month. There is no cost for these services.
Serving Hands distributes government issued food which Island Food Products picks up at the GBFB. The distributions take place at the First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven. The food is also delivered by the highway departments of each Vineyard town to four Island senior centers in Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, Edgartown and West Tisbury. Those on the receiving end of Serving Hands and the senior sites can count on items like whole frozen chickens, ground turkey, butter, eggs, rice, cereal, cheese and fresh produce once a month.
While Ms. Burton oversees the Serving Hands site at the Baptist church, Leslie Clapp works with all four of the senior centers on the Island through the Center for Living program. She also coordinates the monthly GBFB food distribution.
Ms. Clapp has lived on the Island for over 30 years and has worked with the senior population through Center for Living for 15 years. She remembers the days when the government supplemental food program consisted of “cheese and butter.” Now the warehouse in Boston is huge, she said, and there are many more and nutritious foods available through the program.
“We average 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of food coming here every month,” Ms. Clapp said. “And it’s pretty much gone that day. Poverty is here and it’s not just a few people, especially in winter. You have to consider things are more expensive here — housing, heat, food, gasoline.”
People who face food insecurity on the Island run the gamut. Some are elderly folks who are on a fixed income for whom it really does become a matter of choosing to pay for food or pay for medicine. Some are working families dealing with unemployment. There are also persons with disabilities who need extra help.
Ms. Burton said that lately, though, there are a lot people in their late 50s and early 60s who are using the Serving Hands program to help keep hunger at bay because of the economic downturn. She said she hopes with the 170 turkeys obtained through Reliable Market, another 20 turkeys coming from the GBFB and then gift certificates if she runs out, Family-to-Family will be able to meet the needs of the hungry in the community during the holidays. But Ms. Burton noted that if the monetary donations do not come in, it will impact the program.
Ms. Burton has researched food insecurity and poverty over the years and spoken on the topic many times. Last year she was responsible for bringing a PBS Sesame Street special highlighting food insecurity for families to the Island. A portion of the television special was filmed at Serving Hands.
“There is hunger here,” Ms. Burton said. “Some people have no clue that there’s a part of the population here who are struggling. There are places all over the U.S., people in every county who are hungry.”
A network of 200 food banks across the U.S. makes up an organization called “Feeding America.” The organization’s website includes a map with most recent data from 2010 stating that Massachusetts has a food insecurity rate of 12.3 per cent, or 806,480 people who lack access to enough food to meet their basic needs. The same illustration states that Dukes County has a 10 per cent food insecurity rate, or 1,620 people experiencing food insecurity.
A donation of $25 to Family-to-Family will provide a holiday meal to some of those 1,620. Send contributions to the Vineyard Committee on Hunger, PO Box 4685, Vineyard Haven, Mass. 02568 and note that the money is to be used for Family-to-Family. Contributions can also be made online at hungercommittee.org. Contact Betty Burton for further information by emailing her at email@example.com or call ing 508-693-5339.