‘We don’t know how it will end’: Hunger stalks amid virus outbreak in US

Ellen Knickmeyer & Jacquelyn Martin

WASHINGTON (AP) — Janeth and her husband, Roberto, are part of the greatest surge in unemployment in the United States (US) since the Depression, setting off a wave of hunger that is swamping food programmes nationwide.

The couple and every adult member of their extended family in the US have lost their jobs in the economic lockdown prompted by the pandemic.

They are among the tens of millions in America — more than one out of every six workers — abruptly cut off from paychecks.

The Associated Press is withholding the couple’s full names because they are in the country illegally and could face deportation.

Their immigration status, their problems with English and scanty access to the Internet all combine to block them from accessing the US government benefit programmes that millions more newly jobless citizens are able to turn to during the outbreak.

Wearing masks to protect against the coronavirus, Roberto, left, and Janeth, right, sit for a portrait with their daughter Allison, five, and dog Henry, outside their rented basement apartment in Washington. PHOTOS: AP
Janeth is handed a bag of donated food in Washington. She was pleased that the bag contained a bit of chicken and rice to cook
Janeth prepares a meal of handmade tortillas and one can of refried beans divided into three portions for her family

Before the pandemic, food policy experts said, roughly one out of every eight or nine Americans struggled to stay fed.

Now as many as one out of every four is projected to join the ranks of the hungry, said Giridhar Mallya, senior policy officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for public health.

Immigrants, African Americans, Native Americans, households with young children and newly jobless gig workers are among those most at risk, said Joelle Johnson, senior policy associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“They’re more vulnerable to begin with and this situation has just exacerbated that situation,” she said.

When the global economy clamped down, Roberto, a cook in his mid-30s, and Janeth, who keeps water glasses filled at another restaurant and is in her mid-40s, spent USD450 out of their final paycheques to stock up. Weeks later, their diminished cache includes two half-full five-pound bags of rice, an assortment of ramen noodles, a half-eaten bag of pasta, two boxes of cornbread mix, four boxes of raisins and cans of beans, pineapple, tuna, corn and soup.

“Cookies?” Roberto and Janeth’s five-year-old, gap-toothed daughter Allison still asked them, always getting a gentle “no” back. “Ice cream?”

Janeth and Roberto have cut down to one meal a day themselves, skipping meals to keep their daughter fed.

On a good day recently, after Roberto landed four hours of work preparing take-home meals for a grocery store, they had enough for what constitutes a feast these days — a can of refried beans split three ways and two eggs each, scrambled. Janeth also made tortillas from their last half-bag of masa flour.

Janeth placed aluminium foil over two of the plates; she and Roberto would eat later. Tears sprang from her eyes as she watched her daughter wolf down the meal.

“Where can we get enough food? How can we pay our bills?” she asked. Then she repeated something she and her husband emphasised again and again over the course of several days: They are hard-working people.

“We have never had to ask for help before,” she said.

Janeth and Roberto also have three adult children and, as the oldest of three sisters here, she and Roberto are trying to keep a half-dozen households in the US and Honduras fed.

By day, they race in their second-hand pickup truck from food pantries and churches to relatives’ houses. They chase tips about food giveaways or temporary jobs. They share their painstakingly acquired cartons of food with her two sisters, who themselves have a total of five young children to feed, and call their grown children with leads on food lines.

And they fight off despair. “We don’t have help. We don’t know how it will end,” Janeth said.

On a recent day, Janeth and Roberto’s breakfast is coffee and a few crackers. Allison eats cereal, a favourite provided by a food bank.

Soon after, Roberto and Allison, who is sporting pink sparkly sneakers, are among the first in line outside a DC food pantry. In line with them: A young African American man newly unemployed and seeking aid for the first time and two foreign-born nannies with their clients’ children in tow. The women now are only intermittently used — and paid — by their employers and need help feeding their own children at home.

Roberto is happy to leave with a bag of bananas, some spaghetti, tomato sauce and other staples.

Another day, Roberto and Allison stay inside the truck while Janeth heads out in a cold drizzle to approach a church said to be providing food. She struggles to read the sign in English posted on the door, then calls the numbers listed. No one answers.

Later, loading their pickup truck to take food to Janeth’s sisters, husband and wife dip into the pockets of their jeans to display the cash they have left — USD110 total.

That’s gas money. Without that, living on the outskirts of town, there’s no getting to food banks, to one-day cash jobs, to stranded relatives facing eviction and hoping for food.

On the drive to Janeth’s sisters in Baltimore, Janeth hands Allison a small container of applesauce. The girl savours each taste, dipping in her finger, licking every last bit. “More?” she asked hopefully, tilting the container toward her mother.

Janeth answers regretfully, tenderly. No more.