As the Island suffers the ravages of an increasingly unsteady economy, jobs are evaporating and many families are beginning to feel the squeeze, there has been a surge of interest in the Island Food Pantry. Fortunately, contributions are up, according to Armen Hanjian, coordinator for the Vineyard Haven-based free food program, though harder days may lie ahead.

Last week, the Island Food Pantry saw a massive turn out. There were 160 visits in the three days it was open. They also had a record turnout for one day in the organization’s 28-year history. On Monday, Feb. 9, there were 61 visitors in two hours.

For Mr. Hanjian, a retired Methodist minister, keeping the pantry going is a delicate balance between the givers and those in need. He has worked as the coordinator since 1996. Fortunately, contributions to the food pantry are up and for the moment there seems a balance.

In the last two years, the food pantry has not had to take from its endowment fund, which suggests that the community has come forward to help more than ever before.

The nonprofit organization accepts donations of food and money. The support comes in a lot of different ways and waves. All of the Island’s grocery stores participate, as well as many businesses.

Mr. Hanjian said he finds it difficult to mention any one or a number of institutions that contribute, because to mention one is to leave out others. Speaking in general, Mr. Hanjian said: “The contributions coming are more substantive. It is less token participation.”

One restaurant donates all the monies received when it sells a pie a la mode.

One person who teaches Yoga has offered to give food pantry volunteers free instruction. Just as there are people of all walks of life in need, there are those from all walks of life who step forward to help.

The Martha’s Vineyard Rotary Club contributes annually, and this year, they gave enough that the pantry could purchase a new institutional refrigerator. The cost of the refrigerator came in at just over $2,000; and $500 was donated by the Martha’s Vineyard Donors Collaborative. A trucking firm contributes transportation. Collaboration is a big part of helping the pantry meet its needs.

Steve Bernier, owner of the Cronig’s State Road markets, said economic hardship is seen at the cash register. “Food stamp use in our store is up 500 per cent over a year ago,” Mr. Bernier said.

Mr. Bernier said all of his store departments are doing what they can to contribute produce and food items to the pantry. More than in the past, he said: “We have gone into a proactive way with all the departments.”

The Vineyard Haven and Edgartown Stop and Shop Markets ran a campaign last fall asking patrons at the cash register if they would donate a dollar or more to the pantry as they checked out. The campaign ended after Thanksgiving, after raising $6,746.

Mr. Hanjian said the biggest contributors to the pantry are the Island’s grocery stores. The Island’s religious centers come in second and the libraries, third.

At the West Tisbury library, as at other libraries on the Island, patrons regularly drop off items. Movie enthusiasts can get their fines for movies waived if they make a contribution to the food pantry, according to Beth Kramer, library director. She said she has seen more food coming in this winter than the winter before: “Sarah Vail and her daughters come by twice a week to pick up the bags and take them to the pantry. We are talking a lot of bags. It has been incredible.”

Each of the two trips include anywhere from four to six bags. The library collects year round, so that when the pantry opens in the fall, the library is already helping.

In Oak Bluffs, there is both need and assistance.

Betsy Gately, a teacher at the Oak Bluffs School, said her second grade students hosted a week of collecting food for the pantry, which ended on Friday, Feb. 13. She retires this year after 35 years as a teacher. For the last 19 years, she and her students have always hosted the community effort on the week of Valentine’s Day. “This year we donated 959 items, probably several hundred fewer than last year, though the quality of the food was higher,” she said.

Years ago, she said, her students could collect between 700 and 800 items. A big year was in 2004, when they collected 1,800 items. In more recent years, the number has ranged from 1,100 to 1,200. “So we thought we did pretty well,” she said. “I am always blown away by the way people will come through to help one another,” she said of the effort.

Roger Wey, director of the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging, sees an increased need for help at his senior center. “This winter is very difficult. We are seeing double the fuel assistance applications, double the number of people being referred. We have our own food to offer, but we are limited by the amount we can give.” He said small amounts of food are given to those in need, in an effort to make sure there is enough for all. “We can give people only a little food, so they have to go to the Food Pantry.”

“It is very difficult. There are no jobs around. People are being laid off. We have got people who have never been out of work before,” Mr. Wey said.

Phil Dietterich is a volunteer at the food pantry, one of 50 who contribute hours a week to the effort. He is retired and works as a part-time music conductor. But at the food pantry, he is all muscle. He volunteers as a “stocker.”

“Every week, we get quite a load of food from Reliable Market. It is all kinds of cans, nonperishable, pasta, canned fruit, vegetables,” he said. From 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. he spends his time stocking. The basement of the United Methodist Church, on Church street (often referred to as the Stone Church) is in some respects an inconvenient grocery store, without the cash register, and the shelves are inconveniently placed. He said the food he sees coming and going out is considerable. “Last week, we had a long morning,” he said. For all the effort of stocking, he said by the end of the day, “the cupboards were bare.”

Mr. Dietterich said he sees his job as trying to create order out of chaos. Most of the key ingredients get dropped off at the church and hands are needed to organize. “Why do I do this? I like being able to help people. I like good physical work, and you get to lift a lot,” he said.

The connections supporters make to the food pantry are as varied as the types of people involved.

For the last three years, Herb Foster, 81, of Edgartown, has used his Jan. 31 birthday party as a way to support the effort. “I tell people, please don’t bring anything for me, but make a contribution to the Food Pantry,” he said. “Some have brought checks or cash, some give food.” Mr. Foster is an emeritus professor at the University of Buffalo and an emeritus president of the Vineyard’s Hebrew Center. He has lots of friends. He said: “At my age, I don’t need anything. It is time to give back.”

This year, 150 people attended Mr. Foster’s birthday party, and afterwards he turned over close to $1,000 in checks and cash to the cause. “We filled up the back of my Jeep Wrangler with grocery items. The car was so full you couldn’t see out the back,” he said. “It seems each year we do this, we do a little more.”

“In spite of the large amount of food that is contributed,” Mr. Hanjian said: “Our shelves are quickly emptied.”

The food pantry will continue to operate three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, into April. March can be the toughest for the pantry and for those in need. Its hours of operation are from 2 to 4 p.m.

The food pantry does have a level of protocol to insure that visitors are actually in need. “The first time they come, they can get food,” Mr. Hanjian said. If they come more than once they need to bring a letter of reference from someone with a letter head: clergy, medical, social worker of some kind.

In the 2008 calendar year, the pantry spent $56.462, and it brought in just $17 shy of that. Mr. Hanjian said like so many others, the food pantry’s endowment suffered with its investments. The money put in CDs was fine and grew, but the money put into mutual funds took a hit, he said. “But that doesn’t affect our day-to-day operations,” he said.

“Certainly, the mind set for everyone is to be more careful, and to prepare for harder days,” he said.