NEW YORK - At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic this spring, Sharawn Vinson often woke up crying. A recurring thought was making the unemployed single mother desperate: That her kids could go hungry.
There was also fear of contracting the virus, which has disproportionately hit low-income Black families like hers. Meanwhile large protests against racial injustice were transpiring right outside their window. There were unpaid bills, and feelings of shame from having to go to a soup kitchen to eat.
So Vinson made the painful decision to send 11-year-old twins Mason and Maddison to live with their father, six states to the south, knowing that way they’d at least be fed.
“I needed them to breathe,” Vinson said, wiping away tears in her living room of peeling gray walls in a Brooklyn housing development.
Vinson was not alone in struggling to put food on the table in this tumultuous year. In New York City alone, an estimated 2 million residents are facing food insecurity, a number that the city’s mayor estimates nearly doubled in the pandemic amid the biggest surge in unemployment since the Great Depression. The scope of the problem outstrips previous crises such as the Great Recession, according to those who are working to combat it, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
“It’s never been this tragic for such a sustained period of time,” said Rosanna Robbins, director of food access and capacity at City Harvest, the city’s biggest food rescue organization. “Since COVID hit, the numbers of people in line at food pantries and soup kitchens skyrocketed, and it’s not going down. ... We expect there to be a real need for free food for a very long time.”
When schools closed in March, Vinson’s children lost the free breakfasts and lunches they rely on. She began skipping meals to make sure they ate, and having them wake up later to try to trick hunger by giving them two meals a day instead of three.
“You never realize how important schools are until you don’t have them,” Vinson said.
Oldest daughter Jasmin, 25, and 5-year-old grandson Hunter were living at a homeless shelter but came to the apartment where the family would share whatever they cobbled together for lunch.
“The kids would unconsciously save a chicken wing for Hunter,” Vinson said.
The family was cooped up for weeks during lockdown, living on just $1,800 a month in worker’s compensation from an on-the-job injury Vinson suffered last year.
As she tried to stretch meals of spaghetti and frozen burgers, the kids would argue over everything from who got to control the TV remote to who got the last snack.
Vinson was no stranger to hunger, having been raised in poverty by her mom, also a single mother.
She took comfort in prayer and gospel music. One song in particular spoke to her: Melvin Crispel III’s “Not the End of Your Story.”
“I know that this is just not it,” she said of the pandemic. “There’s more, there’s something, it’s not the end.”
Across the city, lines at pantries stretched for blocks. Social distancing was complicating distribution efforts, and many pantries lost older volunteers who stayed home due to high risk for COVID-19. Churches, volunteers, city government offices, restaurants and immigrant centers stepped in to fill the void.
In May, Vinson saw a Facebook post seeking volunteers for a pantry run by a restaurant owner and a Baptist church.
“I said, you know what? That’s something that’s up my alley,” said Vinson, whose job before injury and the pandemic was at a shelter for people with mental illnesses and chemical addictions.
Vinson brought Jasmin and the twins to volunteer alongside her. It was a way to teach them the value of service, and also to ensure they got at least one meal a day from the pantry.
Then protests and clashes sparked by the police killing of George Floyd raised haunting memories of an incident earlier in the year when police stormed the apartment building searching for a suspect and pointed their guns at Mason as he was cleaning the litter for his cat, Shadow.
It traumatized the boy and made him angry at police, she said. One day this summer, as she sat outside watching a protest, a neighbor called her name — across the street, Mason was jumping up and down on a patrol car.
“I was at a loss for words, because how do I tell you not to be angry when four of their brothers in blue had guns to your head?” she said.
On June 4 the twins headed south to their father in North Carolina.
Living without them was hard, she said, but it bought her time to stabilize her ability to provide. She saved up food stamps and some money, and found a job working for the 2020 U.S. Census.
One day she asked the restaurant owner who ran the pantry if she could bring back some trays for her housing complex. That effort has since grown to dozens of meals, groceries and protective face masks distributed each Saturday.
The twins came home in August, in time for Maddison to graduate remotely from middle school and for Mason to make the first youth football practice of summer.
The police department apologized for the incident involving Mason and hosted him and a group of other kids and their families to discuss their concerns.
The coronavirus outbreak has slowed significantly in New York. But times remain tough: Their rent is four months overdue, and the cable is about to be cut off. The bathroom recently flooded, sending water through the halls.
Still, Vinson feels fortunate.
“There’s so many people who are out here who are hungry,” she said. “I got my grandson, I got my kids and I got my life. What do I got to complain about?”
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