Covid-19 (Corona Virus)

America at Hunger’s Edge – The New York Times

“Often we make a whole chicken and then just put a bunch of different sides with it,” Zakrzewski says.


A shadow of hunger looms over the United States. In the pandemic economy, nearly one in eight households doesn’t have enough to eat. The lockdown, with its epic lines at food banks, has revealed what was hidden in plain sight: that the struggle to make food last long enough, and to get food that’s healthful — what experts call ‘food insecurity’ — is a persistent one for millions of Americans.

Photographs by Brenda Ann Kenneally

September 2, 2020

Beginning in May, Brenda Ann Kenneally set out across the country, from New York to California, to capture the routines of Americans who struggle to feed their families, piecing together various forms of food assistance, community support and ingenuity to make it from one month to the next.

Food insecurity is as much about the threat of deprivation as it is about deprivation itself: A food-insecure life means a life lived in fear of hunger, and the psychological toll that takes. Like many hardships, this burden falls disproportionately on Black and Hispanic families, who are almost twice as likely to experience food insecurity as white families.

Like so many who live at hunger’s edge, the members of the extended Stocklas family — whom Kenneally has photographed for years — gain and lose food stamps depending on fluctuating employment status in an unstable economy. They often have trouble stretching their funds to the end of the month, so they pool resources to provide family-style dinners for all.

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“Often we make a whole chicken and then just put a bunch of different sides with it,” Zakrzewski says.

Zakrzewski’s sister, Kayla Stocklas, 30, with her brother Jesse, 18. “We’re always pulling together to make meals happen,” Zakrzewsi says.

Joseph Stocklas-Campos, 6.

When Kandice Zakrzewski, 25, was no longer eligible for food stamps, she stopped buying Lactaid for her son, Matthew Ratleph, 2. “We had to give that up for him. And just say ‘You can’t drink milk.’ Or we have to water it down.”

When Kandice Zakrzewski, 25, was no longer eligible for food stamps, she stopped buying Lactaid for her son, Matthew Ratleph, 2. “We had to give that up for him. And just say ‘You can’t drink milk.’ Or we have to water it down.”

Just days before Kenneally arrived, the governor closed schools statewide, creating a new source of stress for food-insecure families, which often rely on free school lunches to keep their school-age children fed. This made the family’s big collective meals all the more crucial. “Even if it’s just pitching in $10 when we don’t have food stamps,” Kandice Zakrzewski says, “we all pitch in.”

Zakrzewski’s son Brayden Ratleph, 6.

Zakrzewski’s son Brayden Ratleph, 6.

Kayla Stocklas. “We just kind of get our food and just all do our own thing," Zakrzewski says.

Kayla Stocklas. “We just kind of get our food and just all do our own thing,” Zakrzewski says.

Late last year, Doris Hall, 63, moved back to Gary, her hometown, to look after her great-grandchildren — “so they don’t have to be in daycare,” she says. On weekends, she takes in as many as nine of the children — occasionally all 14 — so that their parents can work.

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Hall’s $194 in monthly food stamps usually runs out after a few weeks.

‘‘I told them, ‘You’re not getting anything if you don’t eat the food here,’ ’’ Hall says.

Skyilla Tucker (standing), 7, and Kimani Lacy, 5, playing a restaurant game in Hall’s front yard.

Hall’s rules are strict: naptime in the afternoon, bedtime at 9 p.m. and most important, whatever she cooks, they must eat.

Hall’s rules are strict: naptime in the afternoon, bedtime at 9 p.m. and most important, whatever she cooks, they must eat.

For lunch, it’s “microwaveable stuff,” like corndogs, hotdogs and chicken nuggets that Hall picks up at the nearby food bank. Dinners vary: spaghetti, chicken, soups, tacos. When she has a rare moment to eat alone, she makes her favorite meal for herself: greens and tacos.

Some of Hall’s great-grandchildren waiting for lunch.

Some of Hall’s great-grandchildren waiting for lunch.

Armani and Kimani Lacy, 5. “I never liked cooking,” Hall says, “but now that I’ve been taking care of the grandkids, I stay in the kitchen.”

Armani and Kimani Lacy, 5. “I never liked cooking,” Hall says, “but now that I’ve been taking care of the grandkids, I stay in the kitchen.”

In the face of deprivation, food-insecure families often seize any opportunity to get and store food when it’s available.

In Gary, Ind., assembling a full meal from individual school-lunch portions of taco meat.

In Gary, Ind., assembling a full meal from individual school-lunch portions of taco meat.

Stockpiling supplies in Jackson, Miss.

Stockpiling supplies in Jackson, Miss.

Kenneally arrived in Illinois in early June, soon after nationwide unemployment claims filed during the pandemic had topped 40 million.

In Cicero, just west of Chicago, Jennifer Villa, 29, was living in an apartment with a kitchen that needed plumbing repairs. She and her family were already struggling — a disability makes it hard for her to work — and the pandemic had meant less fresh food and even longer pantry lines.

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Whenever food deliveries came, Villa’s kids would celebrate. ‘‘Oh, Mommy, we’re going to have food tonight,” they would tell her. “We’re not going to go to sleep with no food in our tummy.”

Armani Rodriguez

Armani Rodriguez

Sonia Rodriguez

Sonia Rodriguez

By June, the social upheavals following the killing of George Floyd created even more instability for some families. Kenneally visited Manausha Russ, 28, a few days after protests led to the closure of a nearby Family Dollar, where Russ used to get basics like milk, cereal and diapers. “The stores by my house were all looted,” she says.

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“The girls help me all the time with the cooking,” Russ says.

The daughters like their mother’s food, though they will complain sometimes. “Maybe we’ll do a veggie dish one day and they want meat, but I need to stretch our meat,” Russ says.

Damage and fires led to ongoing closures at stores near Russ’s apartment, which forced her to travel farther to get groceries.

From left, Aliza, 1, Nyla, 6, Amarri, 5, and Kadynce, 8, with their mother, Manausha Russ.

From left, Aliza, 1, Nyla, 6, Amarri, 5, and Kadynce, 8, with their mother, Manausha Russ.

Russ lives with her four daughters on the west side of St. Louis. She receives about $635 per month in food stamps, but with the girls at home all day, and her partner, Lamarr, there too, it isn’t always sufficient. “Some days I feel like I have a lot,” she says, “and some days I feel like I don’t have enough.”

The family moved into their current apartment about six months ago.

The family moved into their current apartment about six months ago.

Russ doesn’t have a dining table or chairs yet, so the girls eat on the floor.

Russ doesn’t have a dining table or chairs yet, so the girls eat on the floor.

In so many places, Kenneally found food-insecure families were helping one another out despite their own hardship. Here, in a condominium complex on the city’s east side, a neighbor picked up free school lunches and distributed them to children in the building, including the Boughton sisters: Brooklyn, 4, on the far right, Chynna, 9, and Katie, 8, seen here with a neighbor’s toddler who has since moved away.

Most of the families Kenneally photographed had struggled to feed themselves adequately for years. But she also met families who had been thrown into food insecurity by the pandemic.

Facing
Hunger
For The
First
Time

Text by Tim Arango

In the Horsburgh household, trips to pick up donated food — a service the family had not needed for years, before Covid-19 — became a diversion for the children stuck at home.

In the Horsburgh household, trips to pick up donated food — a service the family had not needed for years, before Covid-19 — became a diversion for the children stuck at home.

Claire Hudson with her son. Hudson has begun bringing food to the homeless in Erie, Pa.

Claire Hudson with her son. Hudson has begun bringing food to the homeless in Erie, Pa.

The federal government’s food-stamp program has been dramatically expanded to confront the economic devastation of the pandemic. But even that hasn’t been enough, as the ranks of the needy grow.

Ciara Young (right) and family, Memphis. Young lost her job in the pandemic.

Ciara Young (right) and family, Memphis. Young lost her job in the pandemic.

In long conversations around the country this August — at kitchen tables, in living rooms and sitting in cars in slow-moving food lines with rambunctious children in the back — Americans reflected on their new reality. The shame and embarrassment. The loss of choice in something as basic as what to eat. The worry over how to make sure their children get a healthy diet. The fear that their lives will never get back on track.

Alexis Cazimero now drives around San Diego County with her younger children, seen here, distributing food to families like hers.

Alexis Cazimero now drives around San Diego County with her younger children, seen here, distributing food to families like hers.

“Folks who had really good jobs and were able to pay their bills and never knew how to find us,” says Ephie Johnson, the president and chief executive of Neighborhood Christian Charities. “A lot of people had finally landed that job, were helping their family, and able to do a little better. And then this takes you out.”

By late June, Kenneally had reached Mississippi, where the economic toll of Covid-19 was falling hard on some of America’s most chronically impoverished areas, where residents have lived under hunger’s shadow for years. The pandemic dropped the state’s labor participation rate to just 53 percent, the lowest in the nation.

Deborah Sulton, 66, who has lived in Jackson all her life, has 25 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

Deborah Sulton, 66, who has lived in Jackson all her life, has 25 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

“The way I feed is, I cook like a cook for an army,” Sulton says.

“The way I feed is, I cook like a cook for an army,” Sulton says.

Even before the pandemic, more than half of Mississippi’s seniors — 56 percent — experienced regular shortfalls in food. One in 4 Mississippians is now experiencing food insecurity, according to the nonprofit Feeding America.

Thaddeus Whitehead, 41, with his children Angel, 7, and D’angelo, 8, in Greenwood, Miss.

Thaddeus Whitehead, 41, with his children Angel, 7, and D’angelo, 8, in Greenwood, Miss.

Whitehead says he spends about $150 on groceries every two weeks, plus he gets boxes of food from a nearby church.

Whitehead says he spends about $150 on groceries every two weeks, plus he gets boxes of food from a nearby church.

The city of Jackson (population 164,000) is often classified as a “food desert” for its high rate of food insecurity and the scarcity of well-stocked stores. Deidre Lyons lives there with her three kids, sister, niece and father. Lyons, 28, receives $524 a month in food stamps, but without access to a car, she can’t easily get to a grocery store to use them.

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“My kids, they love to eat,” says Lyons, whose cousin will occasionally drive her to the grocery store when she isn’t caring for her own children. “My kids eat whatever we cook because they aren’t picky eaters. I’m hoping they stay like that.”

Janiya in late June outside Robinson Food Mart.

Janiya in late June outside Robinson Food Mart.

Jaheim buying a corndog at the Dude With the Food, a convenience store within walking distance of home.

Jaheim buying a corndog at the Dude With the Food, a convenience store within walking distance of home.

The causes of chronic food insecurity are many: unemployment; low wages; unaffordable or unstable housing; rising medical costs; unreliable transportation.

In early July, the pandemic was cresting in Texas just as Kenneally arrived.

Kelly Rivera, a single mother with three kids who makes $688 every two weeks as a teacher’s aide, goes to the food bank on Wednesdays to supplement what she is able to buy with food stamps. “There are times they give you what you need, and there are times they don’t give you what you need,” she says. “You can’t be picky.”

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The family had to wait for hours at the Catholic Charities in 100-degree heat. But Rivera has a message for her struggling neighbors who are too proud to visit food banks: “Don’t be ashamed. That is what the community is there for, to help.”

Rivera waiting in a long food line.

Rivera waiting in a long food line.

Ana, left, and Destiny sit in their car, waiting in a parking lot to be allowed into the actual food line, where they will wait even longer.

Ana, left, and Destiny sit in their car, waiting in a parking lot to be allowed into the actual food line, where they will wait even longer.

Some 800 miles west in New Mexico, near the town of Hatch, workers pick onions for $15 a box, which translates to less than a minimum wage for many workers. There are no food pantries nearby, and so the workers are forced to eat extremely simply on their earnings, making nearly everything they eat from scratch.

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Juan Pablo Reyes is using the money he made picking onions to help pay for college. ‘‘People that work at the bottom of the food chain, cultivating all these different crops, are basically the builders of our country,’’ he says.

Yasmin and Yeslin Reyes, 11, are the only members of their family who don’t work in the onion fields, but that will change next summer.

Yasmin and Yeslin Reyes, 11, are the only members of their family who don’t work in the onion fields, but that will change next summer.

Their older brothers started when they turned 12, and the same is expected of them.

Their older brothers started when they turned 12, and the same is expected of them.

Juan Pablo’s high school graduation cap says “Proud Immigrant” and has flowers in the colors of the Mexican flag.

Juan Pablo’s high school graduation cap says “Proud Immigrant” and has flowers in the colors of the Mexican flag.

Leaving New Mexico, Kenneally headed west across Arizona. She finished her journey in Southern California at the end of July. The story there was no different than it had been across the country, except that wildfires were also beginning to ravage the state — yet another crisis in a year full of them.

An event planner and hairstylist who has been out of work since early in the pandemic, Alexis Frost Cazimero, 40, now spends her days driving around the county with three of her children — Mason, 6 (not pictured); Carson, 5; and Coco, 1 — collecting food for her family and for neighbors and friends who are unable to leave their homes or reluctant to seek help.

Cazimero says she is grateful she has been able to help others. “Being that person in the community that shares and brings resources to the people that can’t get them brings purpose to my family.”

Adam Cazimero, 40, Coco (standing), Mason and Carson.

Adam Cazimero, 40, Coco (standing), Mason and Carson.

Kenneally’s photographs reveal the fragility of American life, exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. They show us how close to the edge so many families live, how vulnerable and insecure their arrangements are, and also how resilient they can be when faced with a crisis.

But nothing stands out from these images more vividly than the children: eating whatever they can, whenever and wherever they can, somehow managing to maintain, in the midst of this historically desperate time, some innocence and some hope.

They are the greatest victims of the food-insecurity crisis. Research has shown long-term links between food insecurity and a wide variety of health issues in children — elevated risks of asthma and other chronic illnesses, lags in educational attainment. And according to a Brookings Institution researcher, the number of U.S. children in need of immediate food assistance is approximately 14 million.

For most of these children, the pandemic did not cause the instability that plagues their lives; when it is over, they will face a crisis no less acute, one that has persisted in this country for generations.

In the richest nation on earth, they live at the edge of hunger.

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