Going to bed hungry

THE WASHINGTON POST – Hunger is tightening its grip on America. It is an empty fridge in New Mexico, a skipped meal in Pennsylvania, an unpaid bill in California, a line of cars just outside the nation’s capital.

Everywhere, people are lining up for food – parents and grandparents, students and veterans, employed and underemployed and jobless. They often spend hours waiting for as much food as will fit in a box, then days trying to make it last until they can line up again, in a week or two.

One in nine adults said their households don’t have enough to eat. Billions in food aid expired at year’s end. The country’s largest network of food banks is bracing for a 50 per cent reduction in food from the government this year.

United States (US) President Joe Biden has increased funding for food stamps and school lunches and proposed nearly USD2 trillion in new economic relief. For families in need, it can’t come soon enough.

Kelly Evens was a self-employed home healthcare worker in the Pittsburgh area, until she caught the virus.

She hasn’t had steady work since, or received unemployment. Most days she has five children to feed – a teenage son, an 11-year-old daughter and three grandkids, who stay with her while her eldest daughter, Kathryn, drives for DoorDash. Every meal is a struggle.

Guadalupe Rosas looks in the refrigerator after unpacking a box of food in the Inglewood neighbourhood of California. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Elsa Montego and her son William ask for some corn meal

Kathryn Avitts spends 10 hours most days, and seven days most weeks, delivering meals. Sometimes she takes the kids with her, but they get tired after a few hours in the car. The USD1,200 stimulus cheque last spring helped Avitts keep up with her bills for a few months, but now she’s behind again.

The food stamps she receives are not enough to feed the family.

The local food bank has only enough supplies to offer pickups once a month, and the next-closest one is 45 minutes away. Getting there takes time Avitts can’t spend working and gas money she can’t afford.

Evens has been hearing “Mom, I’m hungry” a lot more in the past six weeks, she said. “I know, honey, I’m sorry, have a spoonful of peanut butter”, she tells them.

“There’s really nothing to give them. Katie and Michaela would have spaghetti noodles with butter and Parmesan. Then, the Parmesan was gone and then, the butter was gone,” Evens said. “You know, you try to be creative, but as a parent, that’s the worst feeling, but there were several days where we all sort of just stayed in bed and slept, just to not be hungry.”

Nearly 24 million adults reported they sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the past week, according to the latest Census Bureau data analysed by The Post, more than at any other time during the pandemic.

In many parts of New Mexico, fresh food is hard to come by, even in better times.

You can drive for miles without passing a supermarket.

If you don’t have a car, the local dollar store may be the only place to get groceries. The Food Depot is based in Santa Fe, but serves nine counties. It’s a lifeline for small, indigent communities, even more isolated during the pandemic.

Murphy, who would give only her first name, was living comfortably in Santa Fe, semi-retired after a career as a paralegal. She had saved up for a trip to Egypt.

The pandemic ended her travel plans, then it drained her savings. She’s always given to charity, and she prides herself on being the person others turn to when they need a hand. Now, for the first time, she’s had to ask for help.

“I actually opened my refrigerator door and said, well, what can I make with the ketchup and the mustard? So let me drive by the Food Depot. To have to admit,” she said, and she paused, crying, “that I needed help was hard on me”.

“But it’s also a fact, unfortunately, almost the norm now, during this pandemic, that there’s so much more of us” who need help, she said. “It’s okay to admit that you need help and to see it, because we’ve got to get through this together.”

In Inglewood, California, in the heavily Latino neighbourhoods near the Los Angeles airport, some three in 10 families live in poverty.

Many people here have lost their jobs in the service industry; some are undocumented and don’t qualify for government aid. They can all turn to St Margaret’s Center, which provides food every Wednesday to around 225 families.

For Juan Rosas, the weekly food box from St Margaret’s has been one of the only constants in a time of uncertainty. He lost his job delivering food to hotels and restaurants.

Now, his days are full of worry – about his four children’s struggles with virtual learning, about his landlord’s threats of eviction, and, most critically, about keeping his family fed.

“We try not to worry them,” he said about the children. “But they do know what’s going on. It is like you’re walking and you don’t know when you’re going to get there, or when this is going to stop. There are times when I am alone, and I start crying.”

There is hunger, too, in affluent areas. In Takoma Park, Maryland, on the outskirts of DC, hundreds of cars from across the region line up twice a month. Volunteers fill their trunks with food. When the day is done, they take a box home for their own families.

Among them is African American on a fixed income retiree Theresa Nedd who loves to cook for her six grandchildren – curry chicken, rice and peas, macaroni and cheese.

“My son said, ‘You’re spoiling them, you need to stop’, ” Nedd said. ‘”But I’m a grandmother, and that’s what grandmothers are for.”

A husband and wife set up the food distribution, piecing together grants and donations. Founders of Shepherds of Zion Ministries International Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, Smith Kwame Oliver Vodi and Yvonne Reginat Vodi poured their energies into feeding people after the pandemic forced a halt to services.

They started serving 2,000 people every two weeks; now it’s up to more than 5,000.

“Things are hard,” Yvonne Vodi said. “It’s really tough right now.” She tells those who come to pick up the food, “I know you are striving so hard to make ends meet. You are striving so hard to get breakfast, to get lunch and dinner. But know that there’s hope.”