Meanwhile, Back in the Real World — Hunger on Martha’s Vineyard

Dear Wife is in Philadelphia for the “Beyond Hunger: Real People, Real Solutions”  conference. Right about now she’s sitting on a panel about “hidden hunger” in communities that are perceived to be affluent.

Below the fold, a draft of her introductory remarks.

Good Day

The island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts lies about six miles south of Cape Cod. Its area is about 100 square miles, or about three fourths the area of Philadelphia.  There are six small towns, but the island is mostly rural. There are a lot of farms and trees on Martha’s Vineyard. There are no traffic lights, Wal-Marts or McDonalds’.  You get to the Vineyard by airplane or boat; there’s no bridge or tunnel. There are no highways, but lots of curvy country roads, many of which are not paved.

The year-round population of the island is about 17,000, but in the summer lots of vacationers and tourists come, and on any given day in July or August there may be as many as 120,000 people there.

Many of our summer visitors are rich and famous. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton vacation there often. Movie stars, athletes, investors, lawyers, authors, rock stars and foreign aristocrats all come, and many of them have mansions hidden in the woods. If you go to Martha’s Vineyard Airport in the summer, you will see dozens of private jets. It’s no wonder that many people associate Martha’s Vineyard with money. Many people are skeptical when they hear about food insecurity on Martha’s Vineyard. And yet Martha’s Vineyard is the poorest county in the state of Massachusetts, and there are hungry people there.

The majority of households are financially at risk because their rent or mortgage exceeds thirty percent of their incomes as they struggle to support homes that cost twice as much as the state average on salaries that are lower on average by $10,000.  Of the thirteen hundred whom live in poverty on the island, people age 65 and older and families with no husband present are especially vulnerable.

So, who are the year-round residents of Martha’s Vineyard, and why are we, on average, so poor? Let me give a brief history lesson.

A majority of the residents of the town of Aquinnah are members of the Native American Wampanoag Tribe, whose ancestors were here when the first Europeans showed up around 1625. Another portion of the year-round population consists of descendants of the early English settlers. In the 1800’s, Martha’s Vineyard was one of the busiest centers of whaling in the world. The need for men to man whaling ships attracted people from all over, especially from the Portuguese-speaking Azore islands. African Americans began arriving in the 1800’s also. Many people who live on Martha’s Vineyard have families that go back many generations.

A fair number of our older residents are people who retired here after spending their working lives vacationing here. Many of the people who retire here are well-to-do, people like Mike Wallace and presidents of Ivy League universities.

And then there are what we call wash-ashores, people like my husband and me who are not rich, were not born on Martha’s Vineyard, but washed ashore with the tide, and stayed because we fell in love with the place. Many recent wash-ashores are immigrants from Brazil.

In the 1700’s, Martha’s Vineyard, like the rest of New England, was rural; people were generally farmers and fishermen. In the 1800’s, the whaling boom came and went.  From the  early part of the 20th century through the 1960’s the population was tiny, and people treated each other like family, sharing fish, venison, clothing, jam, produce, etc. There was a substantial barter economy. Since then the island’s population has grown dramatically, and for the last fifty years or so, the local economy has been largely based on recreation and tourism.

There was a housing boom in the 1980’s, when lots of wealthy people decided to build big houses here. That created good paying jobs for local carpenters, plumbers, lumber yard owners, etc.  And of course the economy in the summer is all about serving the tourists and summer people.  That creates lots of jobs, but most of those jobs only last three or four months, six months at most.

The influx of wealth drove up the price of real estate and everything else. Housing became harder and harder for middle-class people to afford. Our housing is the most expensive in the state, with the median price of a house is $720K. Not to mention that because everything we consume must be shipped by ferry, we pay more for gasoline, food, clothing – everything – than do our friends over in “America.” Our cost of living is as much as 160% higher than on the mainland. But the salaries of teachers, policemen, librarians, and so forth, don’t take this into account.

Winters have always been challenging on Martha’s Vineyard, since so many people who work in the tourist industry are unemployed then. Ever since the economic melt-down that began in 2008, however, things have been really tough. Carpenters who had gone twenty years always having work found that the work suddenly dried up. And the people in the tourist industry have found summer visitors to be much more economical. Shops that had been around for decades went out of business.

In other words, while most food-insecure people on Martha’s Vineyard come from the typically vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly and people with disabilities, in recent years we’ve also seen an increase in the number of able-bodied working-class people who are struggling to get by.  When you tell people that Martha’s Vineyard is poor, they laugh at you. But it’s not funny. The poor and middle class are under siege. Unemployment is at 16%.  The people who fly in on their private jets in the summer are doing fine. The people who work at the hardware store or who own an excavation company are holding on, barely.

The result has been a dramatic increase in food insecurity. I know the problem of food insecurity is increasing all over the country, but I do get a sense that the change has been particularly accelerated where I live.

I would like to briefly mention three problems associated with food insecurity that are somewhat unique to Martha’s Vineyard.

The first is the problem of the perception of Martha’s Vineyard as a wealthy community.  People who are economically secure sometimes have a hard time understanding just how difficult things are for the working class and people who are out of the work force due to disability, age, etc. It’s a problem that many people would just like to sweep under the rug. It’s hard to deal with a problem when you can’t even acknowledge that it exists.

I have done a fair amount of outreach, giving talks to groups like the Rotary Club and churches. I find that once people become aware of the problem, they are anxious to help. There really is a strong community spirit on the island. But people are often shocked to learn of the extent of the problem – even people who have lived here for years.  And nobody wants to make too big a deal of it, for fear that they’ll scare away tourists and make everything worse.

The second problem, paradoxically, is a mirror-image of the first problem. And that’s that because we’re a small island community, everybody knows everybody’s business. Or, that’s what it feels like sometimes.

As you know, many people feel ashamed to ask for help from a food pantry.  The problem is compounded on Martha’s Vineyard, because it’s almost impossible to be anonymous. If you walk into a pantry to ask for help, there’s a very good chance that the people helping are going to be people you went to school with, or know from church, from the library. You can’t hide the fact that you’re broke, and that is very difficult for people to deal with.

Imagine, for example, that some of your ancestors came over on the Mayflower – and there are family names on the island that go back three hundred years. They feel like they’re supposed to have it made by now. The same goes for members of the Wamapnoag Tribe. I myself have seen many people I know come to the door of the pantry, then turn around and leave when they recognized me. I knew they would rather go home hungry than deal with the embarrassment of signing up for free food.

On Martha’s Vineyard we try very hard to preserve the dignity of every person who needs a bit of help obtaining enough food.  It’s a challenge, and I am sure that despite our efforts there are people who could use help who stay away out of embarrassment.  I know that other people in this workshop are dealing with this same issue, and I look forward to discussing this with them.

The third problem is transportation. For example, the main food distribution points in Vineyard Haven are nearly twenty miles from Aquinnah. If don’t have a car, getting to the food distribution is nearly impossible.

In conclusion, I would like to recommend to you the documentary by Sesame Street called Growing Hope Against Hunger, which features a nice segment on a family dealing with food insecurity of Martha’s Vineyard, and how the community helped them. The movie does highlight the many positive aspects of a close-knit community: many people pitching in to help, from local farmers donating fresh produce to students helping with harvests and delivering supplies to shut-ins.  The most poignant moment of the film comes when seven year old Josie explains how, when her father didn’t have enough money to pack a snack for school, she would just fill her tummy with water from the fountain.

I don’t want any hungry child to have to substitute water for food, on Martha’s Vineyard or anywhere else. That’s what motivates me to do what I do, and I’m happy to be here among so many other like-minded people.

Thank you.




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