The deadly pandemic that tore through the nation’s heartland struck just as Aaron Crawford was in a moment of crisis. He was looking for work, his wife needed surgery, then the virus began eating away at her work hours and her paycheck.
The Crawfords had no savings, mounting bills and a growing dread: What if they ran out of food? The couple had two boys, 5 and 10, and boxes of macaroni and cheese from the dollar store could go only so far.
A 37-year-old Navy vet, Crawford saw himself as self-reliant. Asking for food made him uncomfortable. “I felt like I was a failure,” he says. “It’s this whole stigma… this mindset that you’re this guy who can’t provide for his family, that you’re a deadbeat.”
Hunger is a harsh reality in the richest country in the world. Even during times of prosperity, schools hand out millions of hot meals a day to children, and desperate elderly Americans are sometimes forced to choose between medicine and food.
Now, in the pandemic of 2020, with illness, job loss and business closures, millions more Americans are worried about empty refrigerators and barren cupboards. Food banks are doling out meals at a rapid pace and an Associated Press data analysis found a sharp rise in the amount of food distributed compared with last year. Meanwhile, some folks are skipping meals so their children can eat and others are depending on cheap food that lacks nutrition.
Those fighting hunger say they’ve never seen anything like this in America, even during the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
The first place many Americans are finding relief is a neighborhood food pantry, most connected to vast networks of nonprofits. Tons of food move each day from grocery store discards and government handouts to warehouse distribution centers, and then to the neighborhood charity.
The Crawfords turned to the Family Resource Centers and Food Shelf, part of 360 Communities, a nonprofit 15 minutes from their apartment in Apple Valley, Minnesota. When needed, they receive monthly boxes of fresh produce, dairy, deli, meat and other basics — enough food to fill two grocery carts. If that runs out, they can get an emergency package to tide them over for the rest of the month.
Crawford’s wife, Sheyla, had insisted they seek help; her hours had been cut at the day care center where she worked. At first, Crawford was embarrassed to go the food shelf; he worried he’d bump into someone he knew. He now sees it differently.
“It didn’t make me a bad man or a terrible husband or father,” he says. “On the contrary, I was actually doing something to make sure that my wife and kids had something thing to eat.”
Food banks felt the pressure almost immediately.
Feeding America, the nation’s largest anti-hunger organization, scrambled to keep up as states locked down and schools — many providing free breakfasts and lunches — closed. In late March, 20 percent of the organization’s 200 food banks were in danger of running out of food.
The problem with supply subsided, but demand has not. Feeding America has never handed out so much food so fast — 4.2 billion meals from March through October. The organization has seen a 60 percent average increase in food bank users during the pandemic: about 4 in 10 are first-timers.
An AP analysis of Feeding America data from 181 food banks in its network found the organization has distributed nearly 57 percent more food in the third quarter of the year, compared with the same period in 2019.
There will be no quick decline as the pandemic rages on, having already claimed more than 280,000 lives and infecting 14.7 million people across the nation.
Feeding America estimates those facing hunger will swell to 1 in 6 people, from 35 million in 2019 to more than 50 million by this year’s end. The consequences are even more dire for children — 1 in 4, according to the group.
For communities of color, the pandemic has been a compound disaster with Blacks and Latinos reeling from disproportionately high rates of deaths, infections — and joblessness.
Unemployment surged among Latinos to 18.9 percent this spring, higher than any other racial and ethnic group, according to federal statistics. Though it has since fallen, many are still struggling.
More than 1 in 5 Black and Latino adults with children said as of July 2020 they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat, according to the commissioned report. That was double the rate of white and Asian households. It also found that women, households with children and people of color are at greatest risk of hunger.
Abigail Leocadio, 34, first approached the nonprofit Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix, Arizona, during hard times about a decade ago. Her family rebounded and she completed training to become a phlebotomist, landing a job drawing blood specimens for a local lab.
Leocadio was just 7 when her family brought her to the U.S. from their native Cuernavaca, Mexico. She currently is protected from deportation and has a work permit through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
When her husband, a restaurant cook, was laid off earlier in the pandemic, her income — barely more than the $11 state minimum wage — wasn’t enough to cover their expenses.
Though they own a two-bedroom trailer, they pay $500 a month to rent the lot. Add to that as much as $450 in monthly electric bills and internet service so their four kids, 9 to 15, can attend class remotely. Before schools closed, the kids received free breakfasts and lunches on campus.
“It has been hard feeding all the kiddos daily,” Leocadio said outside the trailer after a recent delivery from the charity of two boxes including canned tomatoes, dried beans, rice, breakfast cereal and the kids’ undisputed favorite: specialty Oreo cookies.
The food, she says, provides less than half of what her family eats in four weeks, but significantly reduces their monthly bill to about $250. Before the pandemic, the family was saving to buy a house, but that money has been wiped out. Her husband, though, is back at work.
“We always figure out things one way or another,” Leocadio says, though she’s worried about the surge in coronavirus cases and what lies ahead. “We really don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Many going to food pantries also are receiving food stamps, though eligibility varies among states.
Aaron Crawford says the addition of $550 in food stamps the family started receiving last summer has made a significant difference in their lives.
As the year nears its end, Crawford is more confident.
The months have been filled with setbacks and successes. Both Crawfords developed mild cases of COVID-19. Sheyla had hysterectomy surgery and was out work without pay for six weeks.
But they’ve rebounded, too.
Crawford has two part-time jobs, one at United Parcel Service, the second as a maintenance worker at a home for the elderly. His wife is back at work at the day care center. And their boys are receiving breakfast and lunch at their school that provides day care.
The financial troubles that brought them to the food bank haven’t disappeared. They still have overdue bills and a car that needs repairs.
But after many dark months, there have been moments of relief. This fall when the couple contracted COVID-19, their sons’ school sent meals and milk to help,
And a friend had an 18-pound turkey delivered for a Thanksgiving feast. It was so big the Crawfords had to figure out how to find room for the leftovers in the refrigerator now stocked with food.
A full fridge, Crawford says, is a welcome sight.
“It just kind of puts you at ease,” he says. “There’s a sense of peace.”
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer for The Associated Press, can be reached at scohenap.org or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SCohenAP. Contributing to this report were Martha Irvine in Evanston, Illinois; Rebecca Santana and Gerald Herbert in New Orleans; Anita Snow in Phoenix, Arizona; and Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska.