Hunger in NJ: Food insecurity often an issue for working families

This is the first installment of “Hunger in NJ,” a series produced by NJTV News on food insecurity, a condition facing thousands of families in New Jersey, often forcing them to choose between paying the bills and putting enough food on the table.

Jonathan and Sarah Rios are a young Mercer County couple with a newborn, who know what it’s like to work hard, and also not be able to make ends meet. It’s a struggle, they say, that nearly took its toll on their marriage.

“Stress, depression, anxiety,” said Jonathan.

“I was working maybe two, three jobs — and it wasn’t enough,” he added.

And not enough often translated into not having enough to eat.

“There’s been, going maybe a whole month or so, just eating off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” said Sarah. “Probably not eating breakfast or dinner. Going without anything.”

Often, Jonathan went to work hungry.

“Oh yeah, plenty of times. I’ve went to work without food for maybe a few days,” he said. “And even my boss could see it on my face. I’m fatigued and I haven’t eaten anything. “

His company at the time discounted his lunch.

Now, Jonathan is working for Amazon, earning well above the state’s minimum wage, which hit $11 in January. And he recently got a raise.

“It’s $16.35, before it was $15.15,” he said. “So, it was enough, but not enough to fully survive off of.”

So the couple turned to SNAP, the government program once known as food stamps, but were denied.

Phoebe Brown serves on the front lines of the battle against food insecurity in New Jersey. A case manager with the anti-poverty nonprofit HomeFront, she sees the struggles faced by working families like the Rios’ up close.

“When you work full-time, you’re not eligible for welfare from the state,” she said. “You can’t go to the welfare building and get a lot of benefits that people who aren’t working do get. So you kind of just start to get discouraged with the system.”

With Sarah eight months pregnant, the couple suddenly faced an even worse problem — homelessness.

That’s when they connected with HomeFront, based in Lawrenceville, which provides housing and food whenever they need it. It still can be hard to make ends meet.

“There’s definitely times when we’re short on cash, as far as do we pay a phone bill, do we pay a late car insurance?” Sarah said, holding her infant son. “There’s even times where we ran out of formula for him. Emergency cases, I would give anything for him. I went without paying one of the bills. I went without eating myself, just for him.”

Surprisingly, formula isn’t often donated to food banks, and it would cost the Rios family about $200 a month. So, they rely instead on the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children, also known as WIC.

“It’s really hard to see the look in a mom’s face when, you know, she knows she needs the help but she doesn’t want to admit it,” Brown said. “She doesn’t want to admit that this is a service that she needs and she’s not able to provide it because of her low income.”

A social worker, Phoebe Brown is uniquely positioned to make a difference, and provide dignity, for people in a desperate situation.

Sometimes, that dignity can be as simple as providing someone with a choice what to eat, which HomeFront does wherever it can.

“If we don’t want chicken, we can get pork that month. If we don’t want certain baked good or something, we can always switch it out. If we don’t want a certain canned good, we can always switch something,” said Sarah Rios.

One of the challenges, though, for people who depend on food services is having access to fresh produce. Food banks and pantries often can’t store perishables, so clients end up eating canned vegetables and dry goods.

“A lot of the nutritional food that costs a lot more money than non-perishable items, they’re not getting in the food bank,” Brown said.

But Rios’ can go to HomeFront whenever they’re in need, a helping hand for which they are extremely grateful.

“With the bag that they give us, we don’t have to worry about whether we can cook anything or if we have any food at home. Before that, we had nothing. So this is definitely a huge step to what we had before,” said Jonathan.

“I’m just ecstatic, just knowing that we have enough food. We have our own place to live,” said Sarah. “And we have leftovers for a few nights. We have extra baked goods that we can make. Extra eggs and stuff for breakfast. You know, it’s just really nice to actually have three meals a day now.”

The sentiment is echoed by Jonathan. “I am beyond grateful,” he said. “It’s just an amazing feeling of what they’ve done for us. I couldn’t thank them enough.”

Support for “Hunger in NJ” has been provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.