PASSAIC, NJ — Before the pandemic hit New Jersey, José Díaz used to wake up every day at 4:00 a.m. to make breakfast, and fix some lunch before heading to the local Home Depot in the city of Passaic to work. That changed when the coronavirus pandemic swept the state, and he became one of dozens standing in line at The Salvation Army Community Center in downtown Passaic to get a plate of food, and a bag of groceries that can last him for a couple of days.
“It was very sudden, como un balde de agua fria,” Diaz said, describing that the pandemic hit like a bucket of cold water, “All of the sudden, everything stopped. I said to myself, que voy a hacer ahora? What I’m going to do now?”
On July 9 during his daily briefings at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside, Governor Phil Murphy announced he will $20 million dollars in direct money from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, under the federals CARES Act, to food insecurity, with $10 million distributed before August and another $10 million before December of this year.
“This new federal funding will enable food banks to continue providing for those across our communities who most rely on their services,” Governor Murphy said during his address.
In New Jersey, specifically, 7 in 10 New Jerseyans (71%) were feeling the impact of the coronavirus outbreak when it comes to food security according to a Monmouth University report.
Díaz became one of those New Jerseyans experiencing food insecurity. He is a jornalero, a day laborer who gets hired by the day—or multiple days if he is lucky. The jobs he got were enough to pay for his room, to get some groceries, and most importantly to send money back to his family in El Salvador.
As the pandemic swept the state, many businesses closed down, including the Home Depot Díaz often went to get jobs.
Luckily, Díaz had some savings that he was able to use to keep himself afloat, at least for a couple of weeks. But soon it wasn’t enough, and he had to make a choice: use this money to eat or to send back to his family that depended on him.
“The situation is worse in my country. At least I can find something to eat here. But over there [in El Salvador] there is nothing. No help. No hay nada,” Díaz said.
Díaz’s story is common in the Latino community. During the COVID-19 crises, rates of food insecurity among Latino households with children were 60% higher than White households according to a new data report from Northwestern University.
“Food banks are a critical lifeline for New Jersey families, and now more than ever, they provide nutrition assistance to families and their children who have been struggling to access food during this pandemic,” Governor Murphy said in his remarks.
According to Feeding America, there is deficit of $1.4 billion in additional resources needed to meet the rise in need caused by COVID-19.
In New Jersey, the deficit is of about $20 million. In addition to the over 40 million Americans who struggle with hunger every day, an estimated 17.1 million more people will experience food insecurity during this crisis, according to the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.
Several towns across the state had been hosting food distributions events in order to provide food bags for their needed citizens.
“It’s a great help,” said Wilson Merino who attended the event. “I have been unemployed since March, only my wife is working. This will help us a lot.”
One of those towns is East Newark, where the latest census data shows that 77% of the population is Latino, held their first drive-thru food distribution event this past Thursday.
As more businesses begin to open in the garden state, Díaz is hoping he is able to work as much as he did before the quarantine.
In the meantime, Díaz will continue going to his local food bank until work picks up again. And he will continue sending the little money he gets to El Salvador so his family will also have something to eat.
Diego Jesús Bartesaghi Mena is a 2020 Latino Rebels summer correspondent. A recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School, he is based in Newark, NJ and tweets from @bartesaghi_mena.