Coronavirus Pandemic Leaves Millions Of Americans Unemployed, Hungry

May 27, 2020
Originally published on May 27, 2020 7:03 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Last week, we listened to workers who are packing boxes of food at the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C. Radha Muthiah, the food bank president, described volunteers at a conveyor belt.

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RADHA MUTHIAH: They're each standing on designated X's that are about 6 feet apart. And they're packing - let me see - a total of about 13 items into a box. So I see corn. I see cans of corn, mac and cheese, some soup cans, some rice, cereal, some shelf stable milk.

GREENE: This food is meant to answer a massive increase in demand. People who used to rely a little bit on food donations are now relying on them a lot. People who never had to take a donation suddenly need it after losing their jobs. Our colleague Steve Inskeep followed some of the food bank's packages to a distribution point in suburban Maryland.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: We've got hundreds of food packages. They're in clear plastic bags. Sun-Maid raisins, apples, apple juice.

The food was piled outside on a wet and overcast morning. White tents protected it from the rain.

JOHN ODUKOYA: This is...

INSKEEP: There's some greens, some lettuce.

ODUKOYA: Lettuce.

INSKEEP: Some broccoli, carrots.

ODUKOYA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Mushrooms.

ODUKOYA: Cilantro.

INSKEEP: Pastor John Odukoya, with his wife, leads the church that runs this distribution. They used to do it indoors, once per month; now they work outdoors, once per week.

ODUKOYA: Six months ago, we used to serve, like, 60 to 70 families per month. But since we started this weekly because of the COVID, average is, like, 180 to 240...

INSKEEP: Per week.

ODUKOYA: Per week. So that is how bad. You can see the vehicles all the way back there now.

INSKEEP: Long before this day's scheduled start of distribution, people lined up inside their cars. Julio Gonzales spoke with me through his car window. He wore a mask, and I did too.

JULIO GONZALES: We've been here since, like, 9.

INSKEEP: And why come so early? It doesn't open till 11.

GONZALES: Because sometimes, like right now, the line is pretty long. And, like, we don't want to wait, and then the food's going to be gone.

INSKEEP: He brought his mother, who still has her job at McDonald's, though her hours were cut to 4 1/2 per day. A few cars farther back, a woman who gave her name as Emma was coming to this food bank for the third time in her life. She lost her job in customer service.

Did you have a lot of savings when this happened?

EMMA: Just a little bit. Get me by a couple of months.

INSKEEP: Is that money gone, that savings gone?

EMMA: Pretty much, yes.

INSKEEP: And that's why you're in this line.

EMMA: Mmm hmm. I have to make things stretch.

INSKEEP: Do you have a family?

EMMA: I do. I'm single.

INSKEEP: OK.

EMMA: Four children.

INSKEEP: How old are they?

EMMA: (Laughter) Starting at 9 years old...

INSKEEP: OK.

EMMA: ...To 22.

INSKEEP: Nine up to 22. And how many are still at home?

EMMA: Everyone's home.

INSKEEP: Everyone's home. So they're all depending on you.

EMMA: Pretty much, yes.

INSKEEP: That's hard, ma'am.

EMMA: It's very hard...

INSKEEP: That's hard.

EMMA: ...When your income just kind of got wiped out, snatched from you. I just thank God that we're able to get what we get.

INSKEEP: The line has grown longer here, rather than shorter, even as they've begun to serve cars. It goes all the way down this dead-end street and then back up the other side of the street now, probably closer to 50 cars.

The line includes people who worked in lawn mowing or fast food. It includes a man who was working two jobs as a restaurant worker and as a bartender. It also includes people who have what we would think of as extremely stable jobs. Camilla McKinney is a schoolteacher. School is ending for the summer.

CAMILLA MCKINNEY: I get a couple of more checks, but then after that, not sure what's going to go on.

INSKEEP: Oh, so they pay you the nine months and then not the summer. And then...

MCKINNEY: Exactly. So I usually do summer school. So I don't guess there'll be any summer school. So...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MCKINNEY: ...I don't know what I'm gonna do after this month.

INSKEEP: McKinney lives with her daughter, who still has a job at Lowe's, but it will be a tight few months for their household.

This food line demonstrates that Americans are facing two radically different kinds of summer - people who still have an income can look for gradual improvement, stay-at-home orders lifted, a bit more freedom, more stores open, even a chance for a vacation; people who lost jobs and burned through savings may face conditions that feel tougher.

It looks like you've already moved a fair amount of food. Like, a couple of the pallets are clear now.

ODUKOYA: Oh, yeah there's going down. So more cars are coming in.

INSKEEP: I stood with Pastor John as volunteers dropped bags and boxes into each vehicle's trunk, contact-free delivery.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Nice job. Nice job.

INSKEEP: Oh, better move out of the way of this car. Sorry, Pastor John.

ODUKOYA: Yeah, I tell you...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: See you in two weeks.

INSKEEP: Volunteers call out to each departing driver to come back in two weeks. They ask each family to return here only twice per month so the available food can last longer.

GREENE: That was our co-host Steve Inskeep.

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