2020-07-07
Story

Fernando and his family. July 5, 2020.

Photo by Joe Mahoney / Special to The Colorado Trust

By Fran Kritz

Fernando is cheery by nature. That has stood him in good stead in the four years since a diagnosis of end-stage kidney disease made it necessary for him to stop working at his job—and receiving a salary—as a Denver transit supervisor.

Those wages had allowed Fernando, 42, who was born in Los Angeles and lives in Westminster, to buy a home and support his wife, 19-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. His wife, who is undocumented, does not work, so the only income the family saw once Fernando’s job ended was a monthly $1,400 supplemental Social Security income payment Fernando was eligible for because of his disability—half of his former monthly salary. (Fernando is an alias; his name has been changed in this article due to safety concerns over his wife’s immigration status.)

As expenses outpaced income, the family lost their home and for a time was homeless, living in a shelter run by Growing Home, a Westminster-based community services program aimed at helping families achieve and maintain economic and health stability. A few years ago, the family moved into a Growing Home-subsidized apartment. Rent is $400 per month, and the family’s other expenses are fixed.

“We need to pay utilities, gas for the car to get to dialysis, internet access that during the pandemic we need for school and doctor check-ins. Those are the basics, and take my monthly check,” says Fernando. “We are able to get by thanks to Growing Home’s food pantry.”

Food costs are now higher for the family than they were before the diagnosis. Fernando is on the wait list for a kidney transplant, undergoing dialysis while he waits. Dialysis depletes the body’s stores of protein: “That means I have to add foods full of protein to my diet, such as meat, chicken and eggs, and that adds to how much we have to spend,” he says.

Since March, when COVID-19 cases were first confirmed in Colorado, the crisis has both helped and hindered the family’s food security.

Fernando goes to dialysis three evenings a week, arriving home at 1 a.m. and then sleeping until late morning. The rest of the week, much of the time is devoted to finding the family’s food.

Once or twice a week, Fernando and his wife go to the food pantry run by Growing Home. Before the pandemic, they and other pantry patrons could help themselves from the pantry’s shelves and refrigerators. Now, to help protect everyone from COVID-19, staff and volunteers at Growing Home pack boxes, based on family size, and leave it for curbside pickup.

“What food a family will get with each trip is less predictable now,” says Karen Fox Elwell, CEO of Growing Home. “Food and financial donations have fallen since March, while the need has increased.”

Another food stop for Fernando during the week is a local high school. Since their son’s public school closed because of the pandemic—ending the school-provided free breakfasts and lunches he used to eat—the high school, like many others in the state, distributes prepacked lunches five days a week, available to entire families. This has continued into the summer, through the state’s summer lunch program. No proof of income or any other information has to be shown at the school to retrieve the lunch bags.

“Those lunches help us so much,” says Fernando. “They have juice and milk boxes, fruit, pastry and sandwiches like hamburgers and hot dogs that we warm up to eat later on or the next day. We count on them for a lot of the food we eat.”

What Fernando doesn’t get from the school or the Growing Home food pantry, the family buys when he goes out shopping. He does that with some trepidation, since he is at risk for severe symptoms if he contracts the virus, but his wife does not speak English and is uncomfortable doing the grocery shopping.

“I put on my mask and try to shop as quickly as possible,” Fernando says.

Affording the food became slightly easier during the pandemic, at least for a few months. Historically, the family had received just $17 a month—barely above the minimum monthly benefit of $15—from the federal supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). Under federal legislation passed in March, families received additional emergency allotments for April, May and June.

For three months, Fernando’s family got a SNAP increase to $194 per month. (While they were grateful for the extra money, the maximum allotment for a family of four is actually $646 per month. The advocacy organization Hunger Free Colorado is investigating why the family has not received a larger benefit.)

As of the first week of July, with no federal extension in sight, Fernando’s benefits were back to $17 per month. He went into July with about $300 left in accrued SNAP funds, which can be rolled over each month.

[Editor’s note: As of July 8, one day after this article was published, SNAP recipients and advocacy groups had received word that the increased emergency SNAP benefits were extended through July. This means Fernando’s family’s benefits should remain at $194, instead of $17, for a fourth month. It is unknown if such benefits will be extended further.]

Knowing that the increase in SNAP funds was likely temporary, Fernando used the extra money sparingly for items he doesn’t get in the pantry boxes on a particular week, including produce, protein-rich items, and salt-free versions of soups and beans. Fernando says expenses since he left his job have not allowed for any savings. By the first of the month, the Social Security disability check from the previous month is always gone.

With SNAP benefits at just $17 once more, a supermarket shopping trip typically allows him just some loaves of bread and a gallon of milk. “Without the school lunches and the food bank, even the increased SNAP benefit would be gone in the first two weeks of the month,” Fernando says.

To make ends meet before the pandemic, and before the high school offered lunches to entire families and his SNAP benefits were temporarily bumped up, Fernando made sure his family had enough to eat by volunteering, often several times a week, at the Growing Home pantry. When the day ended, staff would give volunteers items at their expiration date, like meat and dairy products, and those items helped the family stretch their food budget.

Often, families extend SNAP funds by buying cheaper, more calorically dense food items such as cookies and canned meats, says Sara Bleich, PhD, a professor of health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But Fernando risks his kidneys failing if he doesn’t add protein and limit salt. And he only makes the purchases he truly needs, such as milk on days the pantry doesn’t have any to give out.

Ellie Agar, director of communications at Hunger Free Colorado, says the organization is one of many that has petitioned Congress to increase the minimum benefits to $30 per month permanently.

Bleich agrees. “If I could be queen for a day and wave my magic wand… I would permanently increase the size of the SNAP benefit by 15 percent.”

Fernando shared his family’s food-gathering approaches over several weeks to create a picture of what it takes to keep hunger at bay. With the pantry box, school lunches and usually weekly supermarket trips, they make it through a week or so with enough to eat. In this scenario, “we have pretty much what we need,” he says, “but I’m also used to us eating what it is we have.”

Tuesday, May 12

Today, Fernando received a box of food from the Growing Home food pantry that included some produce, a case of eggs, several hamburger patties and a gallon of milk. Not all those products are always available, says Fernando. Carrots and lettuce were the only fresh vegetables available that day. Fernando says he’s grateful, but also trying to eat a good variety.

The box that day also included four cans of protein (such as beans and lentils), three cans of vegetables, two snacks, two loaves of bread and sandwiches. Fernando says the food in the box can be stretched to last a week by supplementing with items from the school lunches like juice boxes, pastry and fruit, and with the supermarket shopping he does when food runs low.

The family has also perfected dishes that stretch the ingredients they receive, like adding vegetables to the meat, especially if it is a small portion, to make a casserole; as well as making and adding refried beans to tortillas, or adding cheese for increased protein.

Monday, May 18

Trips to the supermarket begin with a look at what’s on sale in the meat and fish departments. Fernando will buy salmon, for example, if he has enough money to cover the cost, and especially if it’s on sale. Otherwise, his selection will more likely be lower-cost tilapia. Buying beef is a rarity, since it’s typically more expensive.

“Walmart has a five-pound bag of frozen tilapia that can last us two to three weeks,” says Fernando. (The five-pound tilapia bags run $10-$12, he says; the same size of salmon is usually $25.) “We defrost two pieces each for a meal, and add whatever vegetables we have.”

Fernando also looks for vegetables on sale, and rarely buys organic produce because it is almost always more expensive. Some weeks, though, sale vegetables may be items the family does not know how to prepare or doesn’t like eating—think artichokes or bok choy—in which case he buys more familiar vegetables at the regular price.

Breakfast was typical of many days: burritos made with cheese and eggs from the Growing Home pantry. The school summer lunch program continues to be vital. The family doesn’t get sandwiches every day from the high school where the lunches are distributed, because they get more than one day’s supply each time.

“If they stop providing lunch, that will add to our expense,” Fernando says. “We’d have to buy things like ham to make our own lunch, and so [the lunch program] is a great help to stretch our SNAP dollars.”

Wednesday, May 20

The pantry today provided canned vegetables and beans, a small whole chicken, bread, diced fruit, two mangoes, eggplant, green peppers, oatmeal and pasta. Fernando planned to go the supermarket for other vegetables, and some fish or more chicken.

Friday, May 22

The food pantry box had canned fruit, bread and zucchini, but no meat, canned beans or milk.

Looking towards the weekend, Fernando says, “we should be fine with what we got at the food pantry.”

Monday, May 25 (Memorial Day)

Although no lunches were available from the school on Memorial Day, the family had enough food, with no need to go to the grocery store. Supper was rice and beans with a bit of meat left from the pantry, and a plan to return to the pantry the next day.

Monday, June 1

The box from the pantry contained two gallons of milk as well as plenty of meat, and the family had food from school lunches to stretch over a few days. There were no vegetables in the pantry box, but they did get bread, canned beans and fruit. Fernando planned to shop for eggplant, broccoli and cauliflower.

“Without the SNAP dollars,” he says, “I’d have to rely even more on the food pantry, which sometimes these days just doesn’t have that much of what we need.” (This was two months into the increased SNAP benefit.)

Friday, June 5

The box was more plentiful today, including vegetables, canned goods, two boxes of chicken tenders and a gallon of milk. Two days later, Fernando and his wife volunteered at the food pantry and got their second box for the week, with eggs, bread, cherries, mandarin oranges, a couple of small frozen pizzas, baby back ribs, breakfast burritos and bag of avocados.

“It would be easier to have more funds to purchase what we need, instead of going different places to find different things,” says Fernando. “I wish we could go to one place instead of here for one thing, there for another… and even then, I sometimes can’t get what I need, and sometimes when they have it, I haven’t had enough money to buy it.”

As June progressed, two changes were in process in Colorado that could make food for Fernando’s family and other food-insecure families in the state easier to source and afford. The Colorado Department of Human Services and Department of Education, with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, worked jointly to issue Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) benefits to school-age children who would have received free or reduced-price meals during the time that schools have been closed. Funds will be sent to families receiving SNAP benefits by the end of July, and non-SNAP families in the weeks following.

“Families who qualify will get those benefits even if they picked up grab-and-go meals during that time,” said Karla Maraccini, division director of Food & Energy Assistance at the Colorado Department of Human Services. (This applies to Fernando’s family.)

Each household with a child receiving free or reduced-price meals is eligible to receive $5.70 per child per school day on their SNAP EBT card. Maraccini says for now, the P-EBT funds are limited to the meals lost at schools when they closed, “but the benefit could be issued again if days are missed in the fall.”

Joel McClurg, policy director for Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger, says the emergency benefits will come in handy for those that receive them. The pre-pandemic level for food insecurity among children in Colorado was 12.2%—but with the pandemic and associated job losses, that rate is now estimated at just under 22%.

“It will be bad,” says McClurg of food insecurity during the pandemic, noting that 52% of low-income households in the state have reported job disruption and/or lost wages since the coronavirus arrived in Colorado. “Less than a quarter have an emergency fund and over half say they are struggling to pay their bills. We will have to do major outreach to get free and reduced-lunch families not on SNAP to sign up.”

In late May, Colorado became one of more than two dozen states to allow SNAP beneficiaries to use their benefit cards for online grocery shopping, reducing the time people have to be in stores. Fernando was excited about the prospect of reducing his time in stores, to try to avoid contracting the virus. Participating grocery retailers include Walmart, Whole Foods and King Soopers, which is offering curbside pickup for SNAP-eligible groceries; otherwise, online grocery shopping could include SNAP-ineligible delivery fees.

“To maximize the impact, retailers need to think about solutions for deliveries in areas where food cannot be safely left outside,” says Harvard’s Bleich.

The online shopping is appealing to Fernando, but only if his expanded SNAP benefits of the last few months are extended again—otherwise, the $17 he’s back to as of early July won’t go far. He’s doubly anxious for an extension because of some disappointing news: Just before the pandemic, Fernando learned he was only about two years away from getting a new kidney, which could send him back to work and vastly expand the family’s resources and opportunities. But that time frame recently got longer as transplants dropped during the height of the pandemic, and potential kidney recipients stay on the list longer.

“I’m trying not to be too disappointed,” said Fernando, “and focusing on keeping myself and my family healthy and fed.”

Fran Kritz
Health care and health policy writer
Washington, DC