When it comes to nutrition on Martha’s Vineyard, Islanders are well on their way to ideal conditions for providing healthy food to the year-round community. But there is still more to be done, according to the recent findings of a group of medical students.

Last month, the Rural Scholars program at University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Dartmouth sent eight students to the Vineyard to create a status report regarding Island food security. Food security is a term used in reference to a household’s access to nutritious food choices.

For 10 days in mid-October, the students interviewed the year-round population, visiting schools, farms, senior housing, and speaking with Vineyarders from as many demographic groups as possible. They presented their findings at the West Tisbury Public Safety Building on Oct. 25

The Rural Scholars also visited last year; those studies focused on the subjects of Lyme disease and elder care. The grants funding last year’s studies were provided through the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. This year’s grant came through the Mass in Motion program and the Department of Public Health.

The primary goal of the interviews, Mass in Motion director Peg Regan said, was to determine Vineyarders’ accessibility to food. “But they went way beyond that in their interviews,” she said, digging into “how people eat, how they access food, how they afford food, and where they get their food.” 
Most studies of food accessibility for island populations are conducted on tropical islands, but the food security issues faced in both tropical and temperate climates are much the same. Transportation is the most obvious issue, said student Terry Clarke; simply bringing food to an island presents an accessibility challenge.

But once food arrives on-Island, the group pointed out, access doesn’t necessarily improve. A slide flashed on the screen showing the locations of the Vineyard markets and grocery stores, which skew heavily toward down-Island towns.

“It’s not very evenly distributed on the Island, and that certainly affects the individuals,” said Emily Tsanotelis. “People up-Island really have to develop strategies to adapt to that.” Other barriers to food accessibility that interviewees discussed included overall cost of living, with land being too expensive to support farms, and local food being costly. The seasonal economy brings financial crunches for residents, and, as Ms. Tsanotelis pointed out, “It’s sometimes just easier to buy two pizzas for $30.”

In their surveys, the group found several contradictions in terms of food security perception. Most people interviewed believed that school age children had wonderful access to healthy food, at least until they went home from school. Many felt that the elderly also had good access, thanks to Meals on Wheels and community suppers. But the elderly also landed on a list of groups without access, because their transportation barriers are amplified. The Wampanoag tribe also appeared on both lists, as did immigrant communities.

“We all thought it was revealing that there are these two different views,” Meg Preissler noted. “Often it was the people who were within the group that thought they had great access, and people peering in who felt like they didn’t.” But overall, the Vineyard surprised the students with the sheer number of systems already in place to provide healthy food for residents.

“The spirit of generosity on the Island is not just something we heard about; it’s something we experienced ourselves,” Ms. Preissler said, lauding the “amazing community connection that you have here.”

The Island Grown Gleaning program drew high praise, as did Island Grown Schools’ “from the ground up” model, the farmers’ markets, the Island Food Pantry, the Produce Connection, and elder services such as senior dining and the Blueberry Van. The Healthy Vida program offered through Health Care Access, which focuses on an overall lifestyle program, not just food, was singled out as well. Even though access to healthy foods could prove tricky on-Island, the group found that providing it was definitely a priority for residents.

Group members Megan Gibson, Peter Ronan and Bronwyn Williams presented a series of recommendations for Vineyarders based on their survey results. To help with the school programs, expanded physical space of cafeterias and providing space for winter storage were suggested, as were increased communications between local farmers and schools, and getting more parents involved with gleaning. They also suggested creating an integrated and standardized healthy eating program across the town schools so students will be on equal footing when they get to high school. The overall model provided by Island schools, however, was one that other institutions could emulate when working to incorporate healthy options into meals.

“When I was in school my lunches were very different than the one I ate at the Tisbury School,” Mr. Ronan said. “The kids [actually] ate the bok choy . . . I was pleasantly surprised.” He stressed the importance of outreach programs, which could manifest in community gardens or kitchens. Another way to create bridges between schools and the rest of the Island, the students noted, was to encourage different groups, such as high school students and seniors, to come together for meals, thereby strengthening community connections in the process.

For senior residents, the main concern expressed was improving transportation and delivery of meals; the university students recommended renewing partnerships with fish markets and local grocery stores to supplement the Meals on Wheels program, and encouraged elderly Vineyarders to take advantage of their senior discounts when food shopping. Cooking classes working exclusively with gleaned ingredients could help residents of all ages learn the best ways to prepare food. When shopping, store staff could offer guidance toward healthy choices; the students also suggested using a nutrient sticker system on food items to make choices easier.

Ms. Williams presented a segment on farmed food, noting the particular risks taken on each season by local farmers, which could be mitigated by food contracts and the growth of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. The many commercial kitchens on-Island could be used to process gleaned food for residents at the end of each season, she added.

The group touched on what they called “the R word” — regionalization — as a solution to increase efficiency for both food transportation and for creating Islandwide healthy living programs. But not all changes needed to be so large, Mr. Clarke said. “Small changes accomplish big things.”