(CNN) — Deborah Hightower cried and her body shook with excitement as she looked through the windshield and saw more than 100 cars waiting in line for free food in the mall parking lot.
Most of the people had arrived before dawn to receive donations from a local food bank. Some of the drivers and passengers fell asleep in their cars.
“They have to be desperate to come sit for almost five hours to get a box of food for their family,” Hightower said.
The 57-year-old accountant and mother of three teenagers was recently hospitalized and says she has lost her job twice since March. On the Saturday before Christmas, her eyes filled with tears, not from her sad reality, but from seeing the need around her.
“I would hate to keep the last of something,” he said. “And the person behind me would be in a worse position than mine,” he added.
It is a scene that is repeated in cities across the country, as hunger soars as the pandemic threatens lives and livelihoods. Feeding America, the largest national organization to fight hunger in the United States, reports a 60% increase in the number of people applying for food assistance compared to last year.
Lack of access to food transcends Florida and extends from coast to coast
Feeding America define la food insecurity as “the inability of a household to provide enough food for all people to live an active and healthy life.”
Among the states with the highest rates of food insecurity, between 20% and 22.6% of households, are Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana, according to Feeding America. They are followed by Nevada, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Kentucky, where between 18% and 19% of households lack access to food.
Systemic inequalities in Latino, Black, Native American and minority communities across the country have only worsened during the pandemic, as unemployment rates and COVID-19 infections rise.
In Doraville, Georgia, a food distribution was organized to assist the area’s hardest hit Latino community on the Saturday before Christmas.
Five hundred cars filled the old Kmart parking lot and dozens of people, mostly women with children, waited on foot in the cold to pick up a nearly 10kg box of free food filled with fruits, vegetables, meat and chicken.
“This is an indication of the pain and suffering felt across the country,” said Michael Thurmond, executive director of the DeKalb County government. “We are all in this together, regardless of race, color or creed,” he said.
Florida neighbors help each other in the face of lack of food
In South Florida, one in five people don’t know where their next meal will come from, according to Feeding South Florida. That means more than 1 million people, including nearly 300,000 children.
Some of them waited in line in the Boynton Beach Mall parking lot. But with their pride and dignity drained by the loss of jobs, few wanted to share their personal stories of struggle. Many of those who were willing to speak said they weren’t there to collect food for themselves.
Larry Battisti, 76, said he was collecting food for three members of his church who are unemployed, working part-time, or too worried about COVID-19 to leave their homes.
“I take the time to do it because I love the people I do it for,” Battisti said.
Julie and Leonard Thompson, a retired couple wearing Spiderman masks, arrived in line at 4:30 a.m. and will bring food to seven neighbors and friends who are elderly, bedridden or mothers with young children.
“Even if we don’t have much, we can still share with them,” Julie said.
The Thompsons don’t do it to get praise. One of their neighbors, Ibis Torres, a woman with a medical disability in her 50s, cannot communicate with them because she only speaks Spanish. But she was all smiles and said “thank you” when chicken, juice and protein shakes were delivered to her door.
As they walked away, Torres described his neighbors practically as angels hurling help from heaven.
Increase in demand and decrease in supply
Increasingly, people are being forced to rely on the kindness of others because Florida’s tourism, hospitality, and retail industries have taken a hit.
“The need in South Florida is overwhelming,” Sari Vatske, executive vice president of Feeding South Florida, told CNN. “It is more than double what it was before the covid. We’ve never seen anything like this, and we’ve been in food banks for 40 years, ”he explained.
Between March and November, Feeding South Florida provided more than 68 million kg of produce, meat, milk and other foods to area residents.
The long-sought stimulus agreement reached by Congress on Sunday provides money for the nation’s food supply and nutrition assistance. However, in the short term the demand for free food is expected to remain high.
“We’ve been at this for nine months and we’re still seeing the same scenes that we saw so long ago,” Vatske said. “It is heartbreaking,” he added.
For people who watched the sunrise at Boynton Beach Mall, the line of cars snaking around the parking lot confirmed what they feared: the need for food is growing.
The makes and models of the cars, which included Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, Infiniti and Volvo, show that the pandemic is not just hitting the poor. The middle class is also vulnerable. Some people waited in food lines for the first time in their lives.
“Things rushed forward,” Battisti said. “I don’t think this society really knows how bad people are right now.”
The Thompsons agree. On this holiday they plan not only to deliver food, but also gifts for children.
“People don’t have jobs (and) things are tough physically, financially and even emotionally,” Julie Thompson said.
Deborah Hightower was grateful to see her trunk full of apples, beans, eggs, and chicken.
“I pray that everyone gets what they need for Christmas,” he said.
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