Maria Amaya had just returned to work after a bout with the seasonal flu when an entirely new virus knocked her back down. This time, it wasn’t the sickness that ailed her, but the ripple effects of a deadly pandemic.
The 58-year-old single mom—the sole breadwinner for her 22-year-old cognitively impaired son—lost her full-time cafeteria job and part-time restaurant gig. Unemployment benefits never came.
With no savings, mounting bills and deepening dread, she turned to charity to stay fed. After decades of holding her own, she says it felt uncomfortable asking for help.
“What else could I do?” she asks.
The half-hour walks from home to the bustling food giveaways at Cathedral of Faith just south of San Jose’s Guadalupe-Canoas neighborhood became a twice-weekly ritual. Before long, she began volunteering, which led to some paid work helping people who flocked to the church out of the same desperation that brought Amaya there.
Hunger has long been a harsh reality in the U.S. and in Silicon Valley, even in boom times. But the illness, job loss and business closures hastened by the coronavirus pandemic broadened and deepened the destitution.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Jim Gallagher, an associate pastor at the Cathedral of Faith known by the congregation as “The Dream Doctor.”
Last year, he says, the outreach team overseeing the church’s 15,000-square-foot warehouse distributed $14.8 million worth of food from Second Harvest Silicon Valley to 41,000 families—that’s 150,000 individuals altogether. In the first two months of 2020, the food giveaway kept up roughly the same pace, handing out groceries for about 500 households on distribution days.
Those numbers skyrocketed once the pandemic struck. And Gallagher expects them to get worse before they get better.
Food for Naught
Since March, Cathedral of Faith has been handing out food to more than 1,000 households—and as many as 1,850—on each distribution day. Compared to 2019, the ministry this year is on track to see a threefold increase in people served, extending $41 million in food to 500,000 individuals from 300,000 households.
The hunger pangs are far-reaching.
Second Harvest has been scrambling to meet a doubling in demand to 500,000 clients a month since the pandemic emerged earlier this year. The city of San Jose, which has been using federal CARES Act money to feed a growing number of hungry residents, reported a 15 percent uptick in recipients in the past month alone.
Pre-Covid, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that about 35 million Americans—including 11 million children—didn’t know where their next meal would come from. In 2020, those figures swelled to 54 million and 18 million, respectively.
The lack of sustenance disproportionately impacts Latino and Black households, as well as immigrant and rural communities.
Suzanne Willis, a program development and marketing manager for Second Harvest down in Watsonville, remembers when her food pantry served about 55,000 people monthly, providing them with parcels of fresh produce and pantry staples.
This was early in 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic. After that, the number climbed to approximately 88,000—an increase of 60 percent. Part of the problem is that each winter, tourism and agricultural jobs dry up. That means families need help to feed themselves and to survive, even in a year without a pandemic.
“If you’re spending everything you have on rent and medical and gas, you don’t have the funds for food,” Willis says. “A lot of the work we’re trying to do is make sure people have access to the fresh produce, the lean proteins and the whole grains they need, but also the knowledge on how to use it.”
University of California, Berkeley, sociology professor David Harding agrees that workers in tourist industries often face dueling vulnerabilities: they work in boom-or-bust economies, in areas with an exceedingly high cost of living.
Harding says the pre-pandemic economy was actually pretty good at the start of 2020, in terms of markers like unemployment. But the U.S. generally has high levels of economic inequality compared to other wealthy democratic countries. So, many Californians were already in a precarious spot.
“Our economy is one that, even in the best of times, many working and middle-class families are living paycheck-to-paycheck and aren’t able to prepare for a time like this when the economy goes south,” says Harding, whose research interests include poverty, inequality, urban communities, race and the criminal justice system. “If people have to shelter-at-home and businesses are closed, it doesn’t take long before people are struggling to meet their basic material needs. And we’re seeing that.”
Sure enough, Willis says that during the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, Second Harvest’s numbers went from Second Harvest’s numbers jumped from 30,000 people picking up food per month to 50,000, and they never went down.
In Santa Clara County, information compiled by the nonprofit Feeding America shows that 7.2 percent of residents were food insecure, or hungry, in 2018. And according to state data, the share of Santa Clara County households receiving CalFresh food assistance climbed 81 percent between February and June.
Needing the Way
The effect of the pandemic on food security came swiftly. In a study released this past spring, researchers at Northwestern University found that food insecurity doubled in April of 2020 and tripled for families with children.
In subsequent analyses, the two researchers found that the troublingly high levels held steady into the summer and that Black and Latino children remained much more likely to be food insecure than white kids were.
Willis says the struggles of hungry families are often intertwined with housing insecurity, job insecurity and all forms of social, racial and economic injustices. “All of it ties in together, and it all has this snowball effect on a person who maybe is kind of making it, and all of a sudden you throw in a broken car or a cancer diagnosis or something; that is the kind of thing that will throw a family on the edge completely over it,” Willis says
In general, Harding thinks it can be easy for many Americans to lose sight of what social scientists really mean when they talk about poverty. The typical definition of poverty, whether to a government agency or to an academic, is that someone’s income falls below a threshold, but what that really means is that someone doesn’t have enough money to pay for their very basic needs—food and housing. The resulting consequences can be devastating, especially as they fall on the nation’s kids.
“They’re pretty severe,” Harding explains, noting that the initial rounds of federal stimulus helped, but the benefits wore off. “If you’re thinking about children, it’s going to be influencing their social and emotional development. It’s going to be impacting their ability to apply themselves in school.”
These problems extend far and wide, including to students at the state’s public universities, despite California’s efforts to expand services.
A few months ago, the Cathedral of Faith teamed up with Healing Grove—a nonprofit clinic serving primarily impoverished Latino families in San Jose’s Washington neighborhood—to hire 35 people who lost jobs in the pandemic to help out with food distribution. Amaya was one of them.
“They’ve been amazing,” Gallagher tells San Jose Inside. “A lot of them are single moms and really, really struggling.”
The church outreach also began tailoring its culinary offerings to appeal to the Latino and Vietnamese families that make up most of its clientele. Now, depending on a family’s preference, they can ask for a box of chicken, herbs, noodles and chili sauce and other ingredients to make pho. Or, they could request a package of pork butt, corn husks and masa, among additional items, to whip up some homemade tamales.
“That way people can feed their families what they want,” Gallagher says, “and not just what they get. I know that’s what I’d want for my family.”
Amaya says she’s grateful for the chance to work—especially in a way that meets a need she relates to. But the day before Christmas Eve marked her last day getting paid. She’s stocked up on food for now, but says she has no clue how to pay rent come Feb. 1.
“I can’t think about that right now,” she says, pulling down her blue mask to wipe away tears. “I cry. I cry every day. I can’t go to sleep.”
Without some kind of relief—a new job, at least—Amaya says she’s unsure how to avoid homelessness. “I’m afraid,” she says. “But I don’t want to cry in front of my son.”