By Seth Daniel
The people pushing two-wheeled carts and toting cloth bags began lining up just after 7 a.m. last Friday morning, Nov. 20, to get a prime position for the annual Harvest on the Vine (HOV) turkey and trimmings distribution.
Not a bad idea to get in on the action early, naturally.
But the distribution didn’t actually start until 2 p.m., and needy families had to make sure they got there early in case supplies ran out, as the HOV has become such a dependable, but lonesome, resource for those in the Town seeking emergency food. Had there not been enough for everyone (and there was), there would have been nowhere else to turn in the Town.
According to a Boston Public Health Commission report (CHAMP) issued earlier this fall on mapping the city’s children and their health, Charlestown had one of the highest percentages of children living in poverty in all of Boston at 42 percent. Mixed in with that reality, at the same time, the Town registers one of the highest median incomes in the whole City – according to the CHAMP study. The Boston Survey of Children’s Health also cited in that same CHAMP study, 10.7 percent of Boston children citywide resided in a household that had accessed emergency food from a church, food pantry, or food bank in the previous year. In Charlestown, despite the high level of poverty for children in the Town, there is but one resource for families needing emergency food, and that’s HOV.
Charlestown is a neighborhood of stark contrasts like few other in the City.
By 2 p.m. last Friday, the line had wrapped around the old St. Catherine’s Church and gone all the way down Moulton Street – seemingly a sea of carts and people willing to wait for a little help during the busiest time of the year for the pantry.
“Thank you so much,” said one client as she passed through the fast-moving line, collecting squash, cans of gravy, carrots, onions and – of course – a sizable turkey. “I don’t know how our Thanksgiving would have turned out without you all doing this.” Thanksgiving is an epic time for HOV, the largest distribution of the entire year – even besting the Christmas season. Last Friday, Mayor Martin Walsh dropped by to lend some support to the cause. He joined scores of volunteers from the Town, not to mention elected officials like State Rep. Dan Ryan, Councilor Sal LaMattina and Police Capt. Ken Fong.
“This is just such a blessing,” said Miles Byrne, a volunteer. “To be able to lend a hand to do this for so many people is humbling and rewarding at the same time.”
HOV Organizer Tom MacDonald said they distributed 750 turkeys and 12,000 pounds of canned goods and produce last Friday.
But beyond the banner days such as last Friday’s epic distribution, where there were lots of smiles, there are the regular weeks when families come with no other option in order to feed hungry children – and they aren’t families from far-flung neighborhoods in Boston, they’re families from right in the Town.
“This service is pretty important,” said MacDonald. “We do think we’re the only service like this in Charlestown. It’s a little bit of a bump for these families. We have two distributions a month, but we do Thanksgiving up very big. However, every month we help people get through the month. We give them a week’s worth of food.”
The HOV started in 2003 with just seven families in need, and as part of a ministry for St. Mary-St. Catherine’s Church.
HOV has grown over the last 12 years to serve 725 Charlestown families. The biggest distribution is the week of Thanksgiving, but on an average month, HOV distributes food to 350 families. Each family receives approximately a week’s supply of food, including pasta and sauce, rice and beans, cereal, canned fruit and vegetables, juice, soup, milk, eggs, and meat. Families choose what they want. For example, they can choose between Corn Flakes or Cheerios. What is available each week depends on what MacDonald gathers at no charge from The Greater Boston Food Bank, The Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program (MEFAP), or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). These programs fill only a portion of the food needs for 350 families. MacDonald also reaches out to Whole Foods, Cooperative Bank, Zumes, and other possible sources of food donations. A generous donor provides funding for fresh vegetables or fruit. Other means of providing for the lone pantry in the Town are through local fundraisers and cash donations from a variety of Charlestown organizations. All of it comes together to form one of the most necessary services in the Town for the most vulnerable population.
Distributions are the second Saturday of the month and the last Tuesday of the month, and they take place in the old St. Catherine’s campus on Vine Street near the Bunker Hill Housing Development.
Father James Ronan, of St. Mary’s-St. Catherine’s Church, said the HOV is a pantry that has evolved into a critical piece of the neighborhood’s human service infrastructure – as more and more people flock monthly to the pantry that started small and tapped into a need that made it to grow rapidly.
“The Bunker Hill Housing Development is a family housing development,” he said. “Our service is to the families. The question is families have to make choices every month that entail how it is they’re going to feed their family. The choices are often rather desperate choices about children’s needs and how to feed the family. The ongoing dependable service of the food pantry means that every month the family can depend on receiving a week’s worth of food. It’s happening here twice a month. It’s a relief for a lot of people.”
He also added that no one is coming who doesn’t really need the food service.
“It’s quite a notable thing that we’re certain that families that don’t need it don’t come,” he said. “Casual observers may see it differently. Week in and week out, it serves the need to those families struggling with the bottom line of trying to feed families and children.”
Thanksgiving in Charlestown 2015, by all statistical and anecdotal accounts, is a tale of great contrasts; one of grinding poverty and hunger and one of luxury living and plenty. At that very same time, one only needs to observe only a single distribution at the HOV t
o see its also a neighborhood where the story is about heart-felt volunteers and grateful recipients. “This is an emergency food pantry,” said Ronan. “It’s not the daily thing. This is for families who need it because they’ve run out of options. I pray and hope every day for a time when we don’t need this. All citizens should work towards a day when all families can feed themselves without needing emergency food pantries.”