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For One Food Insecure Family, The Pandemic Leaves 'No Wiggle Room'

Sep 27, 2020
Originally published on September 27, 2020 3:56 pm

Ja Nelle Pleasure never used to think twice about putting food on the table for her family.

In fact, the Pleasure family revolved around food. One of their favorite activities was to spin a globe, put a finger down and cook a dish from the country where it lands.

"It was a lot of fun because we got to eat all over the place, stuff that none of us would have dared try before, like silkworms," she says. "They really look disgusting and scary. ... But when you eat it, it tastes like popcorn."

They haven't done that since the start of the pandemic, when Pleasure lost her job.

"There's not a belt to tighten there. There's no wiggle room here," she says. "I'm unemployed, and there are limited things that I can do."

This is increasingly becoming the reality for millions of Americans, and people of color are much worse off. According to July data from the Census Bureau, nearly 25% of white families with children reported struggling to afford food. Meanwhile, nearly 40% of Black families with children reported food insecurity. Those numbers are more than double what they were before the pandemic.

For Pleasure, the struggle to afford food isn't new. She suffered a stroke two years ago, and focusing on her career as an artist became increasingly difficult. When her husband left soon after that, she was left with a single stream of income to feed her three kids — now 16, 14 and 10 years old.

"You don't plan for things like that to happen in your life," she says. "So for me, it really pulled the rug from under me, and I didn't know what to do."

The pandemic, she says, has made things worse. Almost immediately, she lost the remaining income she was earning as an artist. Meanwhile, when schools shut down, her kids lost access to school meals.

She currently receives $125 per month through Pandemic-EBT, a federally funded program for families whose children qualify for free or reduced-price meals when school is in session.

"The $125, literally, I can spend in like a week, because my kids eat like grown men, like a football team. I don't know where they put it," she says.

Pleasure calls herself a "coupon queen" and stocks up on food when it's on sale.
Dana Cronin / Harvest Public Media

Pleasure doesn't waste anything. Her kitchen counter is lined with jars of pickled vegetables from the garden, and her freezer is stacked with leftovers. She calls herself a "coupon queen," and whenever there's a good sale at the grocery store, she adds to the stockpile of pantry items lining the walls of her garage.

For fresh fruits and vegetables, the Pleasure family relies upon their garden. Their plot sits on the edge of a community garden near their house, where they grow everything from herbs to leafy greens and strawberries.

"I'm cooking literally every day with something that I've grown," Pleasure says. "It helped save a lot of money because vegetables are expensive in the grocery store."

And yet, sometimes it's not enough. That's when Pleasure pays a visit to the local food pantry, which she says was difficult at first.

"[I] was very adamant in letting people know, 'I'm just helping a family. I'm helping a friend,' when really it was for me and my family," she says. "I was just very embarrassed and ashamed that I had to go through this."

At first, she brought her kids to the pantry where they used to volunteer.

"When we actually had to be participants in it, I think maybe there was a little bit of confusion for them. Like, 'Why are we here? Why do we have to do this?' " she says. "So I stopped bringing them, because looking at that and looking at them, it made me feel like less of a parent."

The Pleasure family is far from alone in the struggle to afford food, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem for a number of reasons.

"Families make ends meet by being employed. And when there's a big shock to employment, it's not entirely surprising that food insecurity rates go up," says Diane Schanzenbach, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

In August, the unemployment rate among white people stood at about 7%. For Black people, it was 13%.

And as unemployment shot up, so did prices at the grocery store, with the highest single-month increase seen in the past 50 years.

Meanwhile, millions of students lost access to school meals once the pandemic set in.

"When that went away, that left holes in families' budgets that were really quite deep," Schanzenbach says.

This highlights the importance of food benefit programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, says Schanzenbach. It's also proven that programs like P-EBT, upon which Pleasure relies, really work, she adds. Schanzenbach says increasing funding to these programs is a "no-brainer."

Pleasure works in her garden, located in a community park near her home.
Dana Cronin / Harvest Public Media

Pleasure says she's grateful for programs like P-EBT.

"That took a huge weight off my shoulders," she says. "Now I just have to worry about, will the power be on? As opposed to, power or food? I'd rather my kids eat than have lights. Like, we can get candles. Not a big deal."

After all, even if it was in the dark, she says she's always been able to put some kind of food on the table.

A version of this story was first published by Harvest Public Media on Sept. 11, 2020. Follow Dana Cronin on Twitter: @DanaHCronin

Copyright 2020 Harvest Public Media. To see more, visit Harvest Public Media.


So what does food insecurity look like and feel like for the 1 in 6 people who are projected to experience it this year? We went to find out.

JOHN ROSS: I need one more volunteer to load cars.

MARTIN: On a Friday earlier this month, we visited a food distribution site in Bethesda, Md. It's in Montgomery County, which is one of the wealthiest counties in the country. But as in many places, the need for food has grown since the beginning of the pandemic.

ROSS: People will line up and come right around here. You'll see they've already started lining up.

MARTIN: Before the distribution is set to begin, volunteers like John Ross are unloading some of the more than 200 boxes of food to be handed out. Stacks of bread are piled high on one table, prepared meals and bags of coffee on the other.

ROSS: It's been shocking to, I think, all of us to see this on the ground right here, right now. So we're doing the best we can.

MARTIN: An hour before the event is scheduled to begin, a long line of cars is already winding through the parking lot at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, a volunteer firefighting group that loaned out their space. We met Peter Warner while he was waiting in his car.

PETER WARNER: Last week, I arrived here at 20 minutes after 1. There were a quarter-mile worth of cars in line. I was fortunate to get a spot, and they had almost run out of food 20 minutes after the starting bell. Anyone who got here after 1:30 p.m. was totally out of luck.

MARTIN: Warner arrived early this time. He works part-time at Safeway and receives a monthly disability check of a thousand dollars. That has to cover all of his basics - rent, medicine, keeping his car running and, of course, food.

WARNER: I also am now getting $194 a month in SNAP food stamps, which is invaluable. But today is the 18. My food stamp award comes in on the 22. I have to eat for the next four days.

MARTIN: As we spoke to people, the line of cars kept growing, eventually snaking down the busy street outside the parking lot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How many families? OK, two here.

MARTIN: Many of the people we talked with in line didn't want to say much about their situation. It seemed like a source of shame and pain. One or two said that falling short on food even for a couple of days a month was a chronic problem in an area where the cost of living is high. But most of the people we spoke with said the coronavirus pandemic or the steps taken to contain it was the main reason they needed help with food right now.

Linda is one of them. She was picking up food for her daughter and five grandchildren. Before the pandemic, she worked as a housekeeper.

LINDA: I laid off since May. I'm trying to apply for unemployment if I can.

MARTIN: That unemployment application has yet to be approved, and five months without work or any financial aid is taking its toll.

LINDA: It's too difficult, really. I'm struggling. I hope the pandemic - it's finished soon. You know, it's so difficult. But we are still blessed to have somebody to provide some food for us, so we will still thanks to God.

MARTIN: We also met Adam. He's a father of two. He and his wife are both collecting unemployment and seeking food assistance for the first time in their lives.

ADAM: Both me and my wife are on furlough since March. And now just with the extended benefits down, it's just - it's - yeah, the money is very - it's a lot lower now, so it helps. You know, any little bit helps now because you never know what's going to happen tomorrow or the next day. So it's good just to be prepared for it because you never know how long this is going to last.

MARTIN: There hadn't been any food distribution in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area until August. That's when Andrew Friedson, the Montgomery County council member for the area, brought together a coalition of nonprofit, commercial and faith-based groups to distribute food. You can hear that we're both talking through our masks.

This is an affluent area. Montgomery County is affluent in Maryland, and - which means it's one of the most affluent areas in the country. So when did you realize that you really did need something like that?

ANDREW FRIEDSON: Well, it has always been needed. I think there's more poverty in Montgomery County and even in places like Bethesda than people realize in normal times. And during COVID, it has just gone through the roof, the challenges that we face.

MARTIN: But Friedson says, since the start of the pandemic, the need for help with food and rent are the two biggest issues his office is hearing about from constituents.

FRIEDSON: We desperately need federal government support. The CARES Act was great. That's largely what is funding the public efforts on these - the CARES Act funding, the $183 million that the county has received. But it's nowhere near enough.

MARTIN: And while feeding those in need is the goal of this distribution event, volunteer John Ross says it's about more than just the food.

ROSS: What we want to do out here too is show people that people care. It's not just the calories, but it's the care that comes along with this, too - that we're all together in this, and we all need to be part of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD'S "BLOODLESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.