Thousands of people on Nantucket are impacted by food insecurity, and while there is a lack of data to clearly measure the island’s problem, it is likely far more widespread and complex than most understand.
Those are among the key conclusions of a new Food Insecurity Report published by the Boston-based consulting firm Process First that includes new Nantucket-specific research, interviews with island stakeholders and partners, as well as a group of English, Spanish and Portuguese-speaking island residents who shared their experiences.
Describing “truly astonishing” stories of the challenges they face in accessing healthy food for their families, the report, which was funded by ReMain Nantucket, calls for systematic coordination of services to provide better access to existing programs, and more effective use of the island’s food supply.
As many as four in 10 students in the Nantucket Public Schools district experience food insecurity, based on the most recent free or reduced lunch eligibility data from November 2021. And that is believed to be an undercount given that the qualifications do not adjust for Nantucket’s higher wages and higher cost of living.
Nantucket’s housing costs, coupled with the rising cost of food as well as other goods and services has exacerbated the issue of food insecurity for many.
“As you peel back the onion, the problem gets more nuanced and complicated,” said Matt Haffenreffer, the founder of Process First. “We knew there was a big program and a lot of unmet need, so that didn’t surprise me entirely. But finding the realities was disheartening but also exciting, because once we know what the problem is we can better address it. Overall, the issue exists because it’s hard to solve system problems.”
The report repeatedly acknowledges the lack of data to allow researchers to fully measure food insecurity. But Haffenreffer said the intent was not to wait around for that capability, but rather begin the work to improve the island’s food system and learn more about the scale of the problem through new initiatives.
“We wanted to approach this with not with a study that could take years,” Haffenreffer said. “We said lets’ start working on the program, support existing programs by growing their capacity, get people into those programs and fill gaps. Help us measure these gaps to find out where we are missing these programs and how big is the problem overall? We can learn more about it as we improve it.”
The research outlined in the report coincided with the development of a new referral tool by Process First and the formation of a new non-profit, Nantucket Resource Partnership, that aims to tackle the island’s food insecurity issue with a systems approach. The goal is to gather data and information to streamline and track referrals that will empower the island’s existing food security programs to better serve their clients.
“What we want the platform to do is to allow referral partners to focus on what they do best: engaging with families,” said Brian Lenane one of the founders of Nantucket Resource Partnership. Food insecurity on Nantucket, he said, is an issue many presume simply doesn’t exist on the island given its reputation as an expensive, resort community. But in his work with the Nantucket Community School, Lenane has seen how food insecurity rears its head in different ways for different groups: infants and children, the elderly, and people from different cultures.
“A lot of people scratch their head on this: why is there food insecurity on Nantucket, a place with the highest median home price in the state by a lot?” Lenane said. “But we deal with the community at all levels, and we see children with significant issues and moms and dads trying to cope.”
Nantucket Resource Partnership’s first program, Nourishing Nantucket, will be a collaboration with island grocer Pip & Anchor - which kickstarted the program with its “Send-It” boxes last year - along with the Nantucket Food Pantry, the public schools and more than a dozen other human service organizations. Nourishing Nantucket aims to provide a boxes full of fresh, local food to community members experiencing food insecurity, supplementing and complementing the island's existing program through the Food Pantry.
The Process First report on food insecurity validates the mission of the fledgling non-profit, said Tracy Nichols, another founding member.
“It’s so challenging to look at this in particular because it’s so sensitive,” Nichols said. “We want to gather information about what truly is the need. We might have a client who says they have access to a kitchen, but they’re so consumed by the day-to-day, to have a cooked meal to give to their family would make all the difference. To do that with dignity, love and respect is the key.”
While many might think of food insecurity as someone going hungry, it encompasses much more. Individuals, especially children, may have adequate access to food, but if it’s all processed, unhealthy options, then hunger may not the issue but rather obesity. This so-called nutritional insecurity occurs when families do not have access to healthy, nutrient-dense food.
Food insecurity for some can result from a lack of knowledge about existing programs they are eligible for. For others, it could be the stigma that comes along with needing to ask for help and showing up at a place like the Food Pantry. It may result from housing issues that leave some island residents without access to a kitchen to cook healthy food.
“I was most interested in the way the report looked at food insecurity, which traditionally is ‘you’re starving,’ but it’s more complicated than that,” said Jerico Mele, the town of Nantucket’s Human Services Director. “If kids aren’t getting the right food, they may not be calorically food insecure, but they are in terms of healthy eating habits. So In terms of the magnitude of this issue, it (the report) is what we were anticipating. We see food inscecuritry when it gets to be a pressing problem. I’ve been concerned about the basic food price increase since last fall.”
For Janice Carreiro, the executive director of the Nantucket Food, Fuel, and Rental Assistance program, the report’s findings confirmed what she and her staff see on an almost daily basis. Carreiro’s organization operates the Nantucket Food Pantry, which distributes food to dozens of island families every week.
“It confirms, basically, what hear everyday,” Carreiro said of the report. “The people who come to the Food Pantry, there are all those issues: high rents, having to send money away, not being able to buy food or food being one of the last things they pay for because they have so many bills for housing and utilities. That shrinks the dollar for them. So the need is still there, but prices are higher and what I've seen in the last month or six weeks, is an explosion of utility costs that are really hurting the lower income individuals.”
She added that the report rightly identifies different needs - some want fresh produce while others need shelf-stable goods given their schedule and living situation. But what’s often not considered, Carreiro said, is that Food Pantry clients want food that comes from their culture.
“People want food that is ethnically consistent with what they eat,” Carreiro said. “We may have the freshest of food, but it’s not what they want. We try to bring in Jamaican or HIspanic food, and there are quite a lot of vegetarians, so we’re constantly talking to people about what they need. It’s not as simple as they want fresh fruits and vegetables.”
One problem identified in the report is that eligibility requirements for programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) are not adjusted for the local cost of living. That is an issue that plays out regularly on Nantucket, whether its food security programs or affordable housing lotteries.
“The concern and challenge is that many who are food insecure don’t income-qualify for the programs out there,” said Margaretta Andrews, the executive director of the Community Foundation for Nantucket “Living on Nantucket you have to make a wage to survive, but that might put you out of range for some of these programs that are vital.”
The Community Foundation for Nantucket recently obtained a $1.85 million grant to address food insecurity on the island. Andrews said the non-profit is close to announcing the five partners it will be working with to distribute those funds to benefit the island community.
“It’s going to be, I hope, an incredible thing for our community,” Andrews said.