The Island Food Pantry unfortunately broke another new record last week. In a span of three days, the pantry gave food to 184 Vineyarders. Of the three days, Monday, March 1 was the largest, with 74 recipients.
Though the snow is gone for now, and the coldest days could be past, “this is the tightest squeeze of the year,” said Armen Hanjian, who heads the nonprofit organziation that provides free food for the Island’s indigent. Work and finer weather have yet to arrive.
For those who haven’t worked since last summer, what savings they had to get through the winter is gone.
“It is the heating costs, a long period being out of work and less hope for a job around the corner,” Mr. Hanjian said. That is what draws people to the food center.
What is striking to Mr. Hanjian is that the number represents nearly 200 individuals. Many of them are families in trouble, people who have come to the food pantry because their needs aren’t being met anywhere else. Under the pantry system these people can come only once every two weeks. Each person was verified, in the form of a letter from someone in the clergy, or a social worker, as having a need.
The food pantry operates from the basement of the Christ Methodist Mission Life Center (the Stone Church in Vineyard Haven).
This Wednesday morning, many of the food shelves were bare. But a crew showed up before 10 a.m. with fresh boxes of supplies from the Reliable Market. Cronig’s is also a big supporter, all Island grocery stores contribute.
One of more than 60 food pantry volunteers. Peggy McGrath spent the morning filling 46 bags full of groceries in anticipation of another busy day. She said she didn’t have enough food for all the bags, prior to restocking.
A new shipment of groceries usually arrives between 9:30 and 10 a.m. on Wednesdays. “This is a well-greased machine,” she said. “A lot of people do a lot of work here. It is labor-intensive.”
As the boxes of produce arrived, Phil Dietterich of Oak Bluffs took up a cutting knife, opened each box and began stocking the empty shelves. He would do the job all morning.
From 2 to 4 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, people line up to get free food, but the preparation is huge. Grocery bags are already full when the visitors arrive. Each bag is filled with the identical items: boxed and canned foods, plus a separate plastic bag of potatoes, oranges and bananas. But the work to prepare for those two hours of giving starts as early as 7 a.m. Throughout the mornings, the volunteers show up to help.
The food pantry season runs from autumn to spring, when the community is in most need. This year has seen a 126 per cent increase over a year ago, using the numbers up through the first week of March. There have been 2,064 visits to the food pantry since the season began, compared to 1,642 for the same calendar season a year ago.
If there is any good news, Mr. Hanjian said it comes from those who give. “The community is coming through. The growing need seems to be matched by a growing response. We haven’t run out of money, though we could use more money. We could use more food contributions, but the good news is that we are on top of it.”
Community awareness of the need has come from Island libraries, schools, churches and other religious centers. There are Island Food Pantry donation boxes in all the grocery stores, and sometimes volunteers greet grocery shoppers with a gentle request and a shopping list of nonperishable food items.
On a recent Monday morning Charlene Barbosa of Edgartown and Fred Thornbruth of Vineyard Haven arrived early for their task. The two are regulars and have been volunteering bagging groceries at the food pantry for several years.
The work begins at seven in the morning and they are gone well before the pantry opens for visitors. On this one morning, the two arrange and load 40 shopping bags with cans of vegetables, cans of soup, pasta and rice.
“We are super baggers,” Mr. Thornbruth said, smiling. “We try to make the bags look presentable, because we understand. We are unemployed. We can spend a little more time.”
They work methodically. They start with 40 empty shopping bags set up on a long narrow counter. Then each carries in a box of the items. Every bag gets the same. It takes more than an hour for the two to complete the task. When finished, they fill 40 plastic bags with potato, oranges and bananas.
A ray of bright sunshine comes in through the window and fills the room with warmth.
The two workers fill the morning with humor. Mrs. Barbosa calls out: “Fred? I am missing a hot cereal.”
Minutes later, she adds: “I can’t talk to him when he is counting. He loses track.”
Mr. Thornbruth said volunteering at the food pantry is appealing to him: “I like to give anonymously.”
It is too early to know what kind of budget the Island Food Pantry will operate under this year.
In calendar year 2009, the operation spent $67,000. The money went to pay for food, phone costs. “We pay the church for heat and light,” Mr. Hanjian said. Income last year was $89,000. Mr. Hanjian attributes that increase to higher public visibility. The budget was far better than in years past, when they sometimes operated in the red.
“Of the past eleven years, we’ve had a shortfall for eight years,” Mr. Hanjian said.
The Island Food Pantry does have an endowment, and the organization is committed to spending only the income from the fund, not the principal.
As a nonprofit, Mr. Hanjian said he wants to see the organization have a firm footing no matter the times.
Community support has been thoughtful and generous. There have been old-time movies at the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven since last fall where movie patrons are encouraged to donate cans of food. Mr. Hanjian said he not only likes it for the sustenance it brings but for the community’s awareness of others close by who are in need.
“I anticipate high school students will do something to help at the end of March,” Mr. Hanjian said.