Debra Cummings is tired of “slinging the chicken.”
The longtime Del Paso Heights resident is often the first person called when someone in the North Sacramento neighborhood is in crisis. Whether a family has been evicted, or has lost a loved one, Cummings and other local moms have a crucial task: bring the comfort food.
Too often, she says, it’s a bucket of fried poultry.
“They’ll always grab that greasy piece of chicken, not really realizing how unhealthy that is,” she said. “I’d like to see not just that bucket of chicken, I want to see some healthy things in there, some fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Before the pandemic, Cummings was leading a group of mothers determined to teach their neighbors how to cook nutritious, leftover-worthy meals on a dime.
But with quarantine orders and the economy in a spiral, Cummings’ group is pivoting to meet more immediate needs, delivering fresh produce from local food banks to 150 households each week.
“[When the] pandemic came, we had to really, really step it up,” Cummings said, adding that the demand for food is high because many people have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.
When Danielle Carolina got laid off from her day care job at the start of the pandemic, she immediately started to worry about feeding her family. The widowed Del Paso Heights mother has five children.
“I was like, ‘Lord, what am I going to do? There's no way I can take care of myself and five children on fifty dollars a month in food stamps,’” said Carolina, who is also caring for three more foster children.
Stretching grocery money and rationing meals was already the norm for many families in Del Paso Heights — a tight-knit neighborhood northeast of downtown. It’s what health advocates call a food desert due to its lack of accessible, healthy grocery options. Now, residents say unemployment and other financial challenges created by COVID-19 are exacerbating already-widespread food insecurity.
Carolina says she was already aware of Cummings’ group before the pandemic. But it took her awhile to reach out.
“It was a really, really hard thing for me to have to kind of suck up my pride and ask for some help,” she said.
She says Cummings was there within 45 minutes with a box of fresh produce and other goods, and now shows up with a free box of food twice a week.
Advocates and residents say this kind of neighbor-to-neighbor assistance is crucial to combating hunger in places where the pandemic has taken the hardest toll. July brought the end of federal unemployment assistance, which is expected to deal a major blow to workers who’ve lost income. Children are home from school, and summer break meant a lag in district-provided to-go meals for some families. Isolated seniors may be unable to shop, or cut off from programs or family members they used to rely on for sustenance.
“It’s a stop-start situation, so we just try to make sure we’re covering the gaps,” Cummings said.
Pre-pandemic, the mother’s group Cummings put together would meet occasionally to brainstorm recipe ideas. The women are from a mix of low-income neighborhoods, primarily in North and South Sacramento.
The moms call themselves the “food geniuses”. The group of 15 formed with help from a Sacramento healthy cooking nonprofit called the Food Literacy Center, and the Black Child Legacy Campaign — a collaboration between Sacramento County and several nonprofits aimed at preventing Black child deaths.
The goal is to make nutritious ingredients and recipes accessible to Sacramento’s low-income families, and teach them how to integrate healthy eating into shopping and cooking routines.
“I see the kids all day leaving school and going to Jimmy’s, or going down to Rainbow Market,” said Shani Sanders. “You know they’re not necessarily grabbing fruit, or a salad or something that’s healthier for them. They’re going to get a soda or something fried or something sweet that’s processed sugar.”
Cummings says diets are tied to home environments — when families are working multiple jobs and still saddled with bills, they grab for what’s readily available, even if it’s sparse in vitamins.
Her volunteer team argues that healthier options take only a few extra steps, and can prevent a lifetime of medical issues.
During America’s most recent recession, between 2007 and 2012, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program saw a 76% jump in enrollment as families sought help buying food.
Now, California’s nutritional safety net is feeling the strain of a growing number of food-insecure families.
The latest data from CalFresh, which administers food stamp assistance to Californians, shows more than 350,000 households signed up for food stamps after the pandemic hit in March. As of July of this year, more than 2,500,000 were receiving the assistance - roughly a 16% increase from before coronavirus.
Jared Call, a senior advocate with a nonprofit organization called California Food Policy Advocates, said that’s an unprecedented enrollment increase in such a short window of time.
“So it’s much more stark, much more severe, and people need much more help than they did even during the worst of the last recession,” he said.
Food banks throughout California say the bad wildfire season, on top of the pandemic, has put a strain on resources as more people show up asking for help, either because they’re low on income due to COVID-19 or because they were displaced by fires. Food banks also say they’ve seen a dip in donations in recent months.
And in Sacramento, finding a place to use SNAP benefits can be a challenge depending on where you live.
Amber Stott, executive director of the Food Literacy Center, says food banks are not designed for individuals to come up and get groceries. Instead nonprofit groups must pick up in bulk and distribute to pantries and shelters. But it’s not happening in North Sacramento as often as it is in areas of South Sacramento that are considered food deserts, she said.
“There is not a lot of nonprofit presence in North Sacramento, so this is a gap that Debra and her team are helping to fill,” she said.
Many school districts are distributing to-go meals to make up for the loss of school lunches, but Stott says there are families falling through the cracks due to transportation barriers. And she says districts are having a hard time locating children because some are staying with other relatives while their parents work.
Carolina, of Del Paso Heights, says she has several neighbors who haven’t been able to get to the school pickups.
“There's actually kids who walk through my neighborhood that, you know, they'll see my kids having a popsicle sitting outside or eating something and they’ll ask me for it,” she said. “There's still families out there who are definitely still suffering in our neighborhoods without enough to get by.”
The Bigger Picture
Call, with California Food Policy Advocates, says benefit expansions made at the beginning of the pandemic — including the introduction of the pandemic electronic benefit — haven’t gone far enough to help hungry families. The organization is calling on the federal government for a 15% bump in food stamp assistance.
But Stott, with the Food Literacy Center, says policymakers need to address the inequities behind hunger, such employment and housing insecurity, while also dealing with the immediate problem.
“Unfortunately when we go into a crisis, and this is the same as the last recession, what we focus on is ‘let’s just make sure people have food’, and I think that’s short-sighted,” she said. “Where’s the dignity in that? Do we really care about people if it’s just them being fed?”
Cummings said equipping people with the skills they need to better themselves and their families is a big part of her group’s larger mission. The produce boxes they distribute come with tips, to teach families how to prioritize health even when money is tight.
As for Carolina, she says she learns something new every time she receives a box. She recently got a produce delivery full of leafy, unfamiliar greens. She was not entirely sure what to do with them, but she knew her children needed the nutrients.
“I literally just took some olive oil and I kind of sauteed it,” she said. “And the kids, they loved it. And actually so did I.”
Cummings says she hopes to get back to some of her pre-pandemic work, like pop-up fruit stands and community dinners. In the meantime, she’ll keep making sure people don’t starve.