When it all started – when the coronavirus began to haunt humanity, when she and her husband lost their jobs in restaurants overnight, when she feared she would not be able to feed her family – Janeth went outside with a red kitchen cloth.
It was Easter. His pastor had told him of the origin of the Jewish holiday, of the Israelis painting their doors with lamb blood as a sign for the plagues to pass them by. So Janeth, a Honduran immigrant, hung the red cloth over the door of the family apartment on the edge of the United States capital. It was similar enough, he thought, “to tell the angel of death to walk past our house.”
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And it passes by, hunger.
Now it is the fear of food that keeps Janeth awake.
“I spend hours thinking, thinking about what we will do the next day, where we will find food the next day,” he said. Weeks after the outbreak began, the family’s food and money reserves are running low.
Janeth and her husband Roberto are part of the largest unemployment rise in the United States since the Depression. The trend has unleashed a wave of hunger that is overwhelming food programs across the country. The couple and all the adults in their family in the United States have lost their jobs in the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.
They are among the tens of millions of people in the United States – more than one in six workers – who have been suddenly without pay.
The Associated Press did not disclose the couple’s full names because they live in the United States without a residence permit and could be deported. Their immigration status, their problems with English and their difficulties in accessing the internet combine to prevent them from accessing the federal government’s aid programs that millions of citizens who have just lost their jobs can go to during the outbreak.
Food policy experts estimate that before the pandemic, about one in eight to nine Americans had trouble eating. It is now estimated that as many as one in four will join the ranks of the hungry, said Giridhar Mallya, chief policy officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for Public Health.
The most vulnerable are immigrants, African-Americans, Native Americans, households with young children and now unemployed collaborative economy workers, said Joelle Johnson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
When the global economy stalled, Roberto, a cook in his mid-thirties, and Janeth, who is in her forties and refills glasses of water at another restaurant, spent $ 450 of her last payments to stock up. Weeks later, her dwindling stocks include two half-filled five-pound bags of rice, a noodle collection, half a package of pasta, two boxes of cornbread mix, four boxes of raisins, and cans of beans, pineapple, tuna, corn and soup.
Her five-year-old daughter, Allison, continues to order cookies and ice cream, requests she fondly reject.
Janeth and Roberto have reduced their diet to one daily meal to keep their daughter fed.
They recently had a good day, after Roberto managed to work four hours preparing take-home meals at a grocery store, and they had enough for what is now a feast: a can of refried beans divided into three and two scrambled eggs each. Janeth also made tortillas with her last half packet of masa flour.
Tears fell as she watched her daughter devour the food.
“Where can we get enough food? How can we pay our bills?” He asked. Then she repeated something that she and her husband said over and over for several days: They are hard-working people.
“We have never had to ask for help before,” he said.
Janeth and Roberto also have three adult children and she is the oldest of three sisters in the country. Marriage helps keep half a dozen households in the United States and Honduras fed.
They spend the day in their second-hand truck, going from churches and food banks to family homes. They follow clues about food donations or temporary jobs. They share hard-earned food stamps with Janeth’s two sisters, who have a total of five young children to feed, and call their older children to let them know where food is delivered.
And they fight despair. “We don’t have help. We don’t know how it will end,” said Janeth.
On a recent day, the couple has coffee and a few crackers for breakfast. Allison takes cereal, a favorite brand provided by a food bank.
Soon after, Roberto and Allison, who is wearing bright pink sneakers, are among the first in line in front of a food bank in Washington DC. They are expecting a young African-American man who has just lost his job and is seeking help for the first time, and two foreign-born babysitters arriving with their clients’ children. Women now only have sporadic employment – and wages – and need help to feed their own children.
Roberto leaves delighted to have obtained a bag of bananas, some spaghetti, tomato sauce and other basic products.
Another day, Roberto and Allison stay in the truck while Janeth gets out in a cold drizzle to approach a church that is said to be delivering food. You have trouble understanding the English sign on the door, and then call the numbers that appear. Nobody answers.
Later, hauling the van to carry food to Janeth’s sisters, the couple rummages through their jeans pockets to reveal their remaining cash: $ 110 total.
That money is for fuel. Without that, living on the outskirts, there is no way to get to food banks, to day jobs with cash, to evicted relatives in need of food.
On the way to visit Janeth’s sisters in Baltimore, Janeth gives Allison a small pot of applesauce. The girl savors each bite, dipping her finger and sucking it until nothing is left. “More?” She asks hopefully, holding the container out to her mother.
Janeth responds with affection and regret. There’s no more.