Over 25 years as an executive in high-tech, advertising, and other fast-paced industries, Rebecca Haag helped make money for companies like IBM, Motorola, Bank of America, and General Motors before entering the nonprofit world nearly two decades ago.
“I love the discipline of business. I love the measures you have in business, where you can show return on investment,” said Ms. Haag, who lives in Chilmark and since 2016 has applied that same discipline to her work as executive director of the Island Grown Initiative.
Only the milestones are different, he told The Gazette during an interview at his IGI office in West Tisbury last week.
“Instead of the return on investment being a profit, it is now a return on your investment through community outcomes,” said Ms. Haag.
“That we feed the people. That we teach children how to grow food and eat healthy meals. That we are committed to changing the way we do agriculture on the Island, to a regenerative methodology that helps capture carbon from the air and helps mitigate climate change,” he said.
“We can help feed people by being good entrepreneurs.”
Ms. Haag leads by cultivating partnerships across the island. — Jane Shepard
Ms. Haag comes to IGI after more than a decade as executive director of the Massachusetts AIDS Action Committee, where she signed on in 2003 for what was supposed to be an interim term while a permanent executive director was sought.
“I accidentally ended up in a nonprofit job,” he said. “I had agreed. . . as a board member I would step in and stabilize the organization, intending to be there for a year, and I was closer to 11. But I loved it.”
Nonprofit leadership provides a sense of mission that he hadn’t found in the business world, Haag said.
“For me, nonprofit work gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I am giving back to my community [and] contributing to the lives of people who need support,” he said.
A graduate of Wells College and Boston University’s business school, Ms. Haag became a year-round islander in 2015, after years of weekends and vacation trips to the home of her wife Mary Breslauer. in Chilmark.
“I had been making the reverse trip from Boston for about five years while still running the Massachusetts AIDS Action Committee, and then I merged that organization with the Fenway Community Health Center,” he said.
“It was just time to make the permanent move here,” said Ms. Haag.
Introduced to IGI by her friend Mary Kenworth, an Island restaurateur, Ms. Haag soon became a frontrunner to lead the organization, where she began work on May 1, 2016.
During its first six years, IGI’s annual budget has grown from $750,000 to $3.2 million, with 35 employees and an expanding suite of services joining its long-standing school gardening and scavenging programs.
The Mobile Market, introduced in 2017, visits island neighborhoods during the growing season with fresh, local produce at affordable prices.
Also in 2017, Island Grown launched a free summer lunch program that is expected to provide up to 15,000 meals for Island schoolchildren and their families this year.
Island Food Pantry merged with IGI in 2021, increased its grocery selection, and moved to the PA Club in Oak Bluffs. Island Grown has also partnered with Good Shepherd Parish to receive bulk food from the Greater Boston Food Bank.
Other partnerships Ms. Haag has encouraged include food waste collection from local restaurants, a venison donation program during deer hunting season, and a network of commercial loaner kitchens where island chefs turn produce and shellfish collected in frozen soups, stews, and baby foods.
“We are now producing 40,000 ready meals this year,” he said.
“We are working closely with health care facilities to try to create more medically-adapted meals as we go forward,” added Ms Haag.
Many of IGI’s recent initiatives and partnerships, beginning with the summer lunch and prepared meal programs, came about through the Food Equity Network, a loosely organized coalition of island businesses, nonprofits, community volunteers and staff. from IGI that Ms. Haag convened in her first year on the job.
Farmers, shopkeepers, fishermen, health workers and people who work with the elderly have participated in network meetings two or three times a year, setting new goals each time.
“We called people and said, ‘How are we going to work together to address these unmet needs?’” he said.
Island Grown has also pioneered food waste collection at local restaurants, turning the waste into nutritious soil compost at Thimble Farm, the nonprofit’s farm and greenhouses in Vineyard Haven.
Under Ms. Haag’s supervision, the organization has moved away from its previous hydroponic farming model, adding soil-grown vegetables in the greenhouses and using regenerative farming techniques in the fields.
Gone are rainbow trout tanks, too, and with them the need to waste energy cooling water inside a hot greenhouse, Haag said.
“There wasn’t a market for trout on one island, and they like cold weather,” he said.
Island Grown’s next step, Haag said, is to add employee housing — two two-bedroom units and two one-bedroom units, with denitrifying septic systems — on the Thimble Farm property.
“To be responsible employers on Martha’s Vineyard now, they must help find a solution to the housing problem,” he said.
Work is also underway on an education and innovation center at the farm, Haag said.
“We take school children to the farm all the time. [and] we don’t have a place to meet,” he said.
Already approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the education center will have indoor classrooms where children and adults can take lessons in regenerative gardening and other food-growing techniques, Ms. Haag said.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to start infrastructure production this fall and start the actual buildings next spring,” he said.
A third and larger project is on the horizon and getting closer, Ms Haag said.
“We need a food center on the island. We need a place where we can have a commercial kitchen, where we can have a warehouse and storage space, large cold rooms and freezers,” she said.
Right now, IGI has storage space for no more than a week’s worth of groceries from the Boston food bank, Haag said.
“If the weather gets bad or the ferries don’t work, we don’t have a backup system,” he said.
“We’re working now on how we’re going to put that together,” Ms. Haag said, noting that the location would need to be in a business district and accessible to islanders of limited means or irregular income.
“There are a lot of working people who occasionally need support with food security,” he said, citing seasonal employment that provides less than a year of income.
A fit and energetic 70-year-old who loves swimming and tennis, Haag does not plan to retire any time soon.
“We have a lot of challenges and I want to be part of the solution,” said Ms. Haag, adding praise for the Island Grown staff.
“I’m so lucky. It’s later in your career that you should be working with young, vibrant, passionate, committed people,” he said.
“We are training leaders who will make a difference on the island for years to come.”