The Island Food Pantry is facing a tough winter. While contributions of food are up this season, Arman Hanjian, the coordinator, is concerned the need will exceed the supply as it has for the past several years.
The cost of food, heat and general living is the highest it has been in recent memory on the Island. For some Vineyarders, that spells trouble. People living on fixed incomes, the underemployed and unemployed face the greatest peril.
The Island Food Pantry is a nonprofit organization started by Islanders for Islanders in 1981. It is one of the first places Islanders go when the cupboard is empty, and the first organization to get in touch with before seeking public assistance.
The pantry operates on the ground floor of Christ United Methodist Church at Church and William streets, a few blocks from Main street in Vineyard Haven. The space, a community room and kitchen, is dedicated from mid-October to mid-April to the mission of providing free food for those in need.
Over the course of the year, 45 volunteers aged from 30 to 91 help in what is no simple task of keeping the fresh, canned and packaged food ready for the dozens of clients that come three times a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 2 to 4 p.m.
First-time visitors are given three bags of food, no questions asked. The second time, the needy are required to come with a letter of referral. The letter can be written by a minister, social worker or any of a number of other organizations that try to help those in need.
Last winter, the pantry served food to 380 families. That’s why Mr. Hanjian is a bit concerned about this winter, since he believes the need could be higher. On Monday, the pantry saw 45 clients, the highest number of people so far this season.
“I’ve been coming to the Vineyard as a summer person for 40 years, before I washed ashore and moved here year-round,” said Ellen Miller Eisenberg, a new volunteer. “Since moving here year-round, I was shocked to find the need on the Island. Those who come here for the summer just don’t see the hardship. When you are a summer visitor, you are here on vacation.”
Fortunately, Ms. Eisenberg said there is a safety net here and she is pleased by the effort. On Wednesday morning, Ms. Eisenberg was moving groceries from the kitchen to the miscellaneous table.
The issue for the pantry this winter isn’t about breaking records. In 2003, the food pantry served 500 families and Mr. Hanjian recalls a year when the number reached 600 families.
The cost of living cuts deeply into the lives of many. The Island population may be shifting and he is not sure why, but he said the needs are real.
“The Brazilian community may have settled. Some have left and the rest is smaller,” Mr. Hanjian said.
“We spent $51,021 on food which is $14,788 more than the previous year,” Mr. Hanjian said. And while there has been an increase in pantry income, a growing shortfall still needs to be addressed.
This spring the pantry announced the establishment of an endowment fund with an initial gift of $205,000 from three estates: those of Kevin Kennedy, Daniel Alisio and Sayan Kasem.
Mr. Hanjian said the pantry has had to borrow from that fund over recent years, bringing the principal down to $184,000, which is tucked away in mutual funds. A quarter of the total was donated just this past spring.
Mr. Hanjian said the pantry plans to restore the fund back to $205,000 and use only interest from that fund for purchasing food. They also want to put an additional $50,000 away, on top of the principal, as a reserve to cover one year’s cost of food.
Mr. Hanjian is a retired United Methodist minister who has worked at the pantry since 1995. He’s been coordinator since 1996.
In his eyes, Island residents will continue to need the pantry in coming years.
“As long as we are an Island with rich and poor, this need will continue,” Mr. Hanjian said. “The fact of the matter is that there are more poor on the Island and fewer in the category of middle income.”
“My concern is that we need to be sure to maintain the basic principal, so that the future needs are covered long-term,” Mr. Hanjian said. “For the seven of the last nine years, our expenses have been more than our income.”
The food pantry always counts on new sources for help.
During the height of this past summer, members of the Federated Church in Edgartown held Thursday early evening clam chowder dinners that raised $1,600 for the pantry. Pointing ahead into the New Year, the Oak Bluffs elementary school second graders again will run a food collection on the week of Valentine’s Day.
The biggest need at the pantry is later in the winter.
“January and February are really the tough months,” Ms. Eisenberg said. “It is after the holidays. Home heating and fuel costs are highest and all the bills associated with the holidays come due. That is when there is the greatest need.”
“That is the time of year when it is either heat or eat,” Ms. Eisenberg said.
Stephen Dantzig, a retired psychologist from Vineyard Haven, is one of the organization’s newest volunteers. He joined a year ago. For at least five hours a week, he drives around the Island visiting stores collecting donations in the food pantry drop-off boxes. He is one of seven volunteers who goes out and collects.
What he finds isn’t insignificant. In a span of three days, he said he can collect as many as eight to 10 shopping bags of food just from Cronig’s Market on State Road in Vineyard Haven. One of the small sites he is assigned to visit is the Vineyard Haven Public Library, where patrons to the library can contribute as much as two bags in a week.
For Carole Early, a sorter and stocker, the reward for her comes easily, seeing the value of her work on the faces of those who visit the pantry. “It is very touching to me to see the people come in and get help,” she said.
Privacy is critically important to the food pantry success story. Mr. Hanjian is concerned that there are people in the community who could use the pantry, but for a lot of reasons won’t.
A number of the clients that go to the food pantry are referred.
“We started sending people over to the pantry as soon as they opened in October,” said Sarah Kuh of the Vineyard Health Care Access Program, a county-funded organization that helps Islanders find health insurance. “Times are tough right now. Everyone struggles with the high cost of housing,” she said.
“We are extremely grateful to have this resource for our clients,” said Tom Bennett, associate executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. “The food pantry gives us a place where we can send people when they are really in need. I think people are headed into a tough winter. Everything that is being reported in the news [is] about foreclosure. I think people are getting anxious.”
More information about the food pantry is available by calling 508-693-4764 or by visiting islandfoodpantry.org. Financial donations can be mailed to P.O. Box 1874, Vineyard Haven MA 02568.