By Kenneth J. Souza
MARTHA’S VINEYARD, Mass. — Even before the Coronavirus pandemic, Father Michael R. Nagle, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish on Martha’s Vineyard, sensed there was a growing need for a food program on the island.
“We started out with the revelation that a lot of school children were dependent upon the schools for their food, so on the weekends many were going hungry,” Father Nagle told The Anchor. “We got what we called a ‘backpack’ program going, where we put six meals for a weekend in a backpack and distributed them to children who wanted them. We started with maybe 40 a week and it went to 80 and more. Then we found other schools in other towns on the island and the program expanded.”
That initial effort soon evolved into the Food Baskets MV Program, which for the past two years has provided bags of food and essentials to those in need.
“In the process we got grants to buy a truck to go to the Boston Food Bank every week and pick up 4,000 pounds of food,” Father Nagle said. “We also got grants to purchase a large walk-in refrigerator and then a walk-in freezer. That way we would be able to put the produce in the refrigerator and the protein in the freezer. Then we progressed to twice a month and have a food distribution at our parish center on School Street in Oak Bluffs.”
When the COVID-19 virus forced many businesses to shut down, Father Nagle said the need only escalated.
“We have a lot of people out of work, so we have now expanded the program to every Saturday,” he said. “We take our truck and pick up 4,000 pounds and then we rent another large truck and pick up 10,000 pounds and give it away on Saturdays.”
Food is currently being distributed every Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the parish center.
“We have a pretty good system: people drive by in their cars, we ask how many people are being fed, then they open their trunks and we put the bags in the trunks to accommodate the number of people specified,” Father Nagle said. “No one gets out of their cars. We have Portuguese- and English-speaking volunteers for directions. We have other volunteers with masks and gloves filling the bags and putting them into the cars.
“We also have a big tent to set up all of the bags, which we needed because of inclement weather. We have more than 20 volunteers. We started with about six — we wanted to keep it small, with less exposure to less people — but now that it has expanded we have asked more people to help and it is working well. We filled more than 300 cars last Saturday and ran out of food.”
Like his brother on the Vineyard, Father Thomas Washburn, pastor of the Catholic Community of Central Fall River, saw an immediate need to provide food for those who had fallen on hard times as a result of COVID-19.
So last month, the collaborative parishes started offering a similar free “Grab-and-Go Meal” drive-by program from outside the parish center at Good Shepherd Church on South Main Street in Fall River.
“This effort is a direct response to the pandemic,” Father Washburn told The Anchor. “Once the stay-at-home orders came down and the secession of public Masses, I gathered the staff to have a discussion about what the likely needs would be and how we could best respond. This was our answer. We know that food insecurity is on the rise and we have the infrastructure to be able to pull these meals together.”
Since March 20, Father Washburn and a group of parish volunteers have been providing an array of freshly-prepared meals on Wednesday and Friday evenings, between 4 and 6 p.m.
“Our first night, we served 220 meals — within a week, that had grown to just shy of 400, and it has stayed at that level since,” Father Washburn said. “The need grew almost immediately.”
Father Washburn said he is thankful for the support of several local businesses that have stepped in to assist. Both the Fall River Grill and Marzilli’s Bakery have been preparing some of the meals and providing them at a “very reduced rate.”
“We pick them up and serve them,” Father Washburn said. “This gives us the ability also to be helping local restaurants by giving them some business during this crisis. And the meals they are preparing are fantastic!”
They have also received donations of food from Sid Wainer & Sons in New Bedford, from T.A. Restaurant in Fall River, from the Westport School System, from St. Stanislaus School, and from Gold Medal Bakery, along with some individual food donors.
Given the social distancing requirements during the pandemic, Father Washburn said he is grateful for the parishioners who have offered to help, but he is trying to keep the volunteers to a minimum.
“Our most important concern is the safety of everyone involved — staff, volunteers, and those getting the food — so the onsite crew is small,” he said. “We have four in the kitchen preparing the meals (all maintaining proper physical distance and wearing gloves and masks), and we have two or three on the street. So we have about 12 volunteers who we rotate through teams.
“Meals are served curbside, so most people just drive up and we hand them the meals. We also have about a half dozen additional parishioners who are baking the desserts that we serve with the meal. They prepare these at home and drop them off for us — and they are delicious by the way!”
Although Father Nagle said they haven’t had any problems getting the food via the delivery trucks, they are limited with the space they have in the walk-in refrigerator and freezer units.
“We just don’t have the capability of getting more because of costs and room in the refrigerator and freezer, so we are doing what we can,” he said. “Like every other community, we seem to be low on some items — paper towels, toilet paper, wipes, etc. — but everything else seems OK.”
Given the expenses involved in obtaining and transporting the food to the island, Father Nagle said donations are always greatly appreciated.
“We figure it is costing more than $2,000 a week, not including the salary for Joe Capobianco, who works for the parish and is in charge of buildings and maintenance,” Father Nagle said. “He just volunteered to help with this project which consumes most of his time now.”
Father Washburn likewise has been blessed with support from District Attorney Tom Quinn’s office, which has committed to cover the cost of one of the “Grab-and-Go Meals” each week.
“Our meals cost us between $1,200 and $1,500 each time — about $4 per meal,” he said. “So, that is a significant commitment from the DA’s office, and they have pledged that commitment indefinitely. We are incredibly grateful.”
Father Washburn has also established a GoFundMe campaign to collect donations to offset the costs involved.
“So far, we’ve raised about $7,000 from there and we’ve received a number of donations large and small from individuals, including three individuals who contributed their COVID-19 relief check to the cause,” Father Washburn said. “We would love to partner with other area restaurants as it is also a great way for us to help them, too.”
Donations to the Food Baskets MV program at Good Shepherd Parish on Martha’s Vineyard can be made online at www.goodshepherdmv.com, or mailed to Good Shepherd Parish, P.O. Box 1058, Vineyard Haven, Mass. 02568. Those interested in volunteering can contact Joe at 508-274-1170.
Donations to the “Grab-and-Go Meals” program at the Catholic Community of Central Fall River can be made online at http://gofundme.com/food-for-fall-river, or mailed to Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, 327 Second Street, Fall River, Mass. 02721.