Fighting Hunger Quietly in Chatham County

Like many mothers facing financial restraints, Mariana* remains poised and happy around her children. Her six-year-old daughter, Daisy, doesn’t realize that her school lunch comes at no cost to her parents, or that they struggle to put a fresh meal on the table every night. What she does know is that when she trots off the school bus at 3 p.m., there is a warm after-school snack ready when she walks in the door.

“I love chicken soup,” Daisy says.

Mariana beams, explaining that she makes the soup from scratch, with plenty of leftover broth to feed her husband and Daisy, as well as her sister, brother-in-law and their son, who also live in the same home.

Mariana combats hunger quietly, stretching inexpensive ingredients to make meals that appeal to all six people at home while keeping them full.

“Because I can’t get that much, I buy just a little bit of meat and accompany that with rice and beans,” Mariana says. “It diversifies the plate, but also rounds out the meal to make it fuller. With rice and beans, you become more full and the plate is complete.”

The two couples emigrated from Mexico to Siler City eight years ago. As the local economy in Chatham County worsened, Mariana and her husband lost jobs that had brought a reliable, steady stream of income. Now, Mariana sporadically cleans houses when she finds clients. Her husband finds contract work at a nearby factory.

Mariana and her sister limit themselves to $200 a week for grocery and household shopping. This includes food and everything else – cleaning products, bath soap and other toiletries. Some weeks, when the cabinets are already stocked with cleaning supplies, the full budget can be spent entirely on food.

“Sometimes we spend less, but that’s when we don’t have enough to buy everything we need,” Mariana says. “Meat is the last thing we buy, and only if we have money. If we have enough money after buying everything else, we buy meat. But we focus on milk for the kids, fruit, vegetables – those are the most indispensable. We prefer fresh food. It’s just better.”

Mariana’s strong preference for fresh fruit and vegetables requires patience. Local farmer’s markets, she says, are too expensive for her family’s budget. “Sometimes we have to wait to buy fresh food. If a watermelon is too expensive, we wait until it goes on sale. Otherwise, we don’t have enough money for everything else.”

Mariana and her sister venture to discount superstores for food shopping. Her best bet, she says, is to drive 45 minutes to an Aldi discount supermarket in Asheboro.

“We get everything a lot cheaper there, so it balances out the driving and paying for the gas. Sometimes the price difference compared to the supermarket is one dollar.”

In addition to those forays, Mariana relies on the food she gets from El Vínculo Hispano (the Hispanic Liaison of Chatham County), which runs a food pantry every first, third and fifth Monday of the month.

“When it’s time for El Vínculo Hispano to give away food, I don’t have to buy as many vegetables at the store because I know I can get fresh food there.”

According to El Vínculo Hispano, roughly 191 families make use of its food pantry services; 383 participants are children and 487 are adults. Natalia Lenis of El Vínculo Hispano says the program requires participants to list their weekly average income as well as if they receive federal food assistance like SNAP benefits. She estimates an average of $150 weekly income for a smaller family, up to $350 for a larger family. The pantry’s fresh food offering is due in large part to a partnership with Farmer Foodshare.

At first, Mariana was concerned about the lunches Daisy receives at school, not knowing how fresh the food would be. One afternoon, she visited Daisy at school and shared a meal with her and came home pleasantly surprised. Daisy and her cousin are among the nearly 50 percent of children in Chatham County who receive free or reduced lunches. According to the USDA, children with families at or below a household income of 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those between 130 percent and 185 percent below the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals, in which students are charged no more than 40 cents.

“Daisy does eat at school, but she really likes to take food from home to eat there,” Mariana says. “Unfortunately, there’s no way for her to warm it up. I’ve been there to eat with her and the food there is pretty good. They give turkey sandwiches on whole-grain bread. School lunches have changed a lot.”

“I try to teach her to eat healthy, to eat more salad and fruit,” says Mariana, “even though that food is more expensive than cookies. But instead of grabbing a package of cookies, I tell my kids to grab one or two melons.”

That message seems to have gotten through. “Sometimes me and my cousin do a lot of exercises –dancing and stuff,” Daisy says. “My cousin always likes Takis [a style of packaged corn chips]. He doesn’t like tomato! But he’s just so active. I like fruit, and helping my mom cook. I don’t feel hungry, because I eat chicken soup when I get home!”