Last February during school vacation week, Island Grown Schools, the Vineyard’s farm to school program, hosted free bread and soup lunches every day of the week at some of the libraries. Not everyone can afford to go away on vacation. These lunches were part of a pilot program developed to help those families affected by food insecurity.
Kat Soni of Island Grown Schools helps serve the soup. She’s upbeat and welcoming, and also in charge of the music.
"We just want to make sure that everyone, especially those who need it the most are receiving high quality food because it’s tough." She adds, "There’s this kind of air of Martha’s Vineyard that everyone is in really great financial situations but that definitely isn’t the case so there’s a lot of people to take care of."
According to Noli Taylor, the community food education director for Island Grown Schools, in 2007 - 12% of public school students qualified for free and reduced price meals. Today it’s more like 40% of Vineyard students. Noli says in part that’s because it’s easier to sign up but also the cost of living has increased. So that means that during any of the school vacations, around 900 kids are at a greater risk for food insecurity.
Winter and spring can be challenging for Vineyard families. Work is harder to come by, savings might be depleted and there’s still a good stretch of time before the tourists return. But also for the elderly, these months can be especially isolating.
Kat explains that anyone and everyone is welcome, “there’s no documentation or anything required.”
The lunch program was funded by a private donor. Around 200 meals were served over the winter break. The cost per lunch was about $4 even with volunteer help.
On the day I visited the West Tisbury Library, I met up with Gabrielle Chronister who also works for Island Grown Schools. She was serving chili out of two of the biggest stockpots I’ve ever seen and the whole place smelled inviting. Definitely not the hushed-library-vibe I grew up around. Even though – at the time – it was dead winter when the Island feels abandoned, this place was hopping with all walks of life and all generations.
Gabrielle explains what's on the menu: "Today for lunch we have a vegetable and bean chili that is vegetarian and then we also have some warm bread, we have some chocolate chip energy bites that are made out of oats and dates and chocolate chips." They also had vegetables and homemade humus.
A different library hosted lunch every day during the winter break. And Gabrielle made a different vegetarian soup - a curried, red lentil & butternut squash for one and a vegetable noodle for another.
Gabrielle says, "This time of year, there’s less things to do and less reasons to get together and this is such a great reason to gather around good, warm food that’s good for you and crack some bread with a neighbor or someone you haven’t seen for awhile."
There’s a stigma around hunger and food insecurity. The best part of these lunches is they’re open to everyone and there’s no pressure. You could be social, or not.
The lunches have had an impact on Gabrielle, "I knew it’d be cool to see who comes together, I had no idea who’d show up and I’ve been seeing people I haven’t seen in years and years so it’s pretty cool to just see a familiar face that you haven’t seen and catch up. It’s just a really interesting and awesome way to gather around food."
It’s also interesting to see how local libraries are trying out new things and finding collaborations to make food available for everyone.
Kat explains, "It was beautiful to see people of all ages coming, stopping by. Some of them came for the lunch some of them were just wandering around the library and smelled the delicious soup sense wafting up."
The pilot lunch program during February school vacation week was a big success. At the heart of it, homemade food filled bellies and lifted peoples’ spirits. But you’re probably also wondering how the food was. So I checked in with eight-year old Umberto who lives in Oak Bluffs. He kept it short, "Must eat more..."