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For One Food Insecure Family, The Pandemic Leaves 'No Wiggle Room'


That challenging food environment we just heard about is exactly what one family near Champaign, Ill., has been coping with since the start of the pandemic. Harvest Public Media's Dana Cronin has their story.

DANA CRONIN, BYLINE: Everything the Pleasure family cooks and eats revolves around their garden.

JOSHUA: We have gotten a lot of tomatoes from this one.

CRONIN: Ten-year-old Joshua has been gardening since he was little. Right now, the family's community garden plot is planted with fall squash.

JA NELLE PLEASURE: Oh, I'm cooking literally every day with something that I've grown - every day - which I absolutely love because it saves trips to the grocery store.

CRONIN: Joshua's mom, Ja Nelle Pleasure, says food has always been central to her family. One of their favorite activities is to spin a globe, put a finger down and cook a dish from that country. But they haven't done that since the start of the pandemic, when Pleasure says things got hard.

PLEASURE: There's not a belt to tighten. There's no wiggle room here. I have - you know, I'm unemployed, and there are limited things that I can do.

CRONIN: She became a single mom of three kids when her husband left two years ago. Without his stream of income, it became difficult to afford the basics, including food. Then came the pandemic. She lost her job almost immediately, and when her kids' schools shut down, it meant no more school meals. She is, however, receiving $125 per month through an expanded food stamps program.

PLEASURE: Literally, 125 I can spend in, like, a week because my kids eat like grown men, like a football team. I don't know where they put it.

CRONIN: Pleasure doesn't waste anything. Her kitchen counter is lined with jars of pickled vegetables from the garden, and her freezer is stacked with leftovers. A self-described coupon queen, she shows off her pantry, where she stockpiles food she finds on sale.

PLEASURE: They're organic, made with fruit juice. And they're like fruit pops. But these are normally - what'd she say? - 6.59, and I got them for a dollar. I was, like, I'm going to take 40 of those, thank you.

CRONIN: And yet, sometimes, it's not enough. That's when she pays a visit to the local food pantry, where her kids used to volunteer.

PLEASURE: When we actually had to be participants in it, I think maybe there was a little bit of confusion for them. Like, I don't want to put words in their mouth, but it maybe was a little shameful. Like, why are we here? Why do we have to do this? So I stopped bringing them because looking at that and looking at them, it made me feel like less of a parent.

CRONIN: Pleasure is far from alone in the struggle to afford food. In fact, food insecurity rates for families with children have tripled during the pandemic. And families of color are even worse off. Black families like the Pleasures report rates of food insecurity twice that of white families. Experts say the easiest way for the government to help would be to increase food stamp benefits. Ja Nelle Pleasure says she's grateful for the help she has received.

PLEASURE: That took, like, a huge weight off my shoulders because now I just have to worry about, will the power be on, you know, as opposed to power or food? I'd rather my kids eat than have lights. Like, you know, we can get candles - not a big deal.

CRONIN: Even if it was in the dark, she says, she's always been able to put some kind of food on the table.

For NPR News, I'm Dana Cronin in Champaign, Ill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dana Cronin