Hunger in NJ: Balancing safety, school and putting food on the table

This is an installment of “Hunger in NJ,” a series produced by NJTV News and NJ Spotlight 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.

Leonna Bryant is a community outreach worker at a South Jersey hospital. She’s also a single mom to her fourth grade daughter, Leah. When schools closed in March, their life changed dramatically.

“She was going to before and after school care. So I went from paying $232 for the month for before and after care, to paying $200 a week now. It is a lot because you don’t budget for this. And now I’m paying potentially another mortgage for child care, so it is definitely a lot,” she said.

And Leah being home also means she’s not getting breakfast and lunch at school like she normally would. The extra food costs add an additional $50 to Bryant’s already tight budget.

“Some kids, that was the only meal they had was at school. School lunch was only $2.50 a day so that wasn’t bad for the week,” Bryant said. “So not having that and now I’m thinking, now I got to buy breakfast, now I have to buy lunch.”

Bryant is also a student is Mercer County College. When the state shutdown started, the college surveyed its student body to find out what the most pressing needs were.

“So we asked them, are you food insecure. Are you in need of assistance for housing? Are you in need of assistance for child care?” said Jianping Wang, the college’s president. “About 60% of them said they need help for food.”

The college began distributing $50 grocery store gift cards to students in need. Bryant was one of them. She received it from Beth Knight, an executive at the school.

“She sent me the gift card and it was like, I sat at my desk and I was just crying. Because I was like, I can’t believe that out of all the kids at Mercer County, I was one of the ones they chose to help when I know there are people in way worse situations than me,” Bryant said. “That meant a lot.”

“Our students not only have academic needs when they come to our college. But they have many, a whole host of needs — child care, food, transportation, technology. And if we don’t assist them with those important, related, educational needs, they will not succeed and our mission will not be accomplished,” Wang said.

Bryant said the gift card fed her and her daughter for a week. And, there is a food bank that she can go to if things get bad enough.

“I’m not there yet, but it’s only right around the corner,” she said. “I know that those options are available. And Beth has always told me, and she still does to this day, if I need them, they are there. The food bank in my county is there. Like I said, my mom is always there.”

“I’m taking it one day at a time. I got to be honest, I’m taking it one day at a time,” Bryant added.

And which each day comes balancing the stress of being exposed to COVID-19 at work, the struggle to finish college, and home schooling her daughter — all while being dangerously close to not being able to put food on her family’s table.

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