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Unemployment Diary: Families struggle to survive after additional benefits expire

“It's like your life before the pandemic turns upside down,” said one furloughed worker.
Image: The Food Bank For New York City Holds Distribution Event For Those In Need At Lincoln Center
New Yorkers in need wait in a long line to receive free produce, dry goods, and meat at a Food Bank For New York City distribution event at Lincoln Center on July 29, 2020.Scott Heins / Getty Images

With federal unemployment benefits ended Friday and no deal in sight, some of the 32 million unemployed Americans are resorting to food banks for the first time in their life.

Larrilou Carumba, a 47-year-old single mother of three kids in San Leandro, California, was furloughed recently from her job as a housekeeper at a hotel.

She says she “never expected” to have to go to a food bank. Now that the pandemic unemployment assistance has expired, her income has fallen by more than half — and she’s struggling to feed her family.

“I live paycheck to paycheck when I'm working. But I was able to provide them at least the things that they need,” she told NBC News. “It's like your life before the pandemic turns upside down.”

Carumba is not alone. Food banks distributed over 1.9 million meals from the beginning of March through the end of June, according to data from Feeding America, a national nonprofit network of foodbanks. In March alone, food banks gave out 20 percent more food than average.

“These are our neighbors,” said Daniel Johnston, Director of Operations at the Davis Street Community Center. “We are seeing people from all walks of life, individuals who have been residents in our community for 30 or 40 years and have never heard of us or never needed help are coming to us now.”

Since the pandemic began, the number of families per day the center is feeding has quadrupled.

Johnston said that these workers are being forced to make an impossible decision.

"Am I going to pay the rent this month so that I don't get evicted? Or am I going to purchase groceries?" he said.

Coronavirus layoffs have fallen heavily on the service industry, leisure and hospitality, putting these workers at extra risk for being “food insecure,” without reliable access to affordable and nutritious meals.

Over 11 percent of households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2018, the most recently available figure. It's a number that has certainly risen during the pandemic.

Absent the $600 per week federal pandemic unemployment assistance, families must navigate a tangle of bureaucracies and programs in order to access food relief benefits, already under threat. President Donald Trump's administration has proposed making cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, reducing the number receiving assistance by 700,000. After pushback in Congress, the administration has agreed to hold off during the pandemic.

Food banks have stepped in to the gap but are having trouble stocking the cupboards to keep up with the heightened demand. Lines of cars to pick up at some food banks have stretched for miles.

Emilie Awwad, a manager at Davis Street, said he sees moms and dads come in “depressed” and “upset.”

“‘They cannot have food and they can't feed their family,” he told NBC News. “They cannot pay the rent. They're thinking of the next day, what's going to happen, what does the future hold for them?”

He says the community center is “that one step, to help them. But it's not the solution for the problem.”

What is needed is “the force of the federal government,” said Awwad. “To be involved to help these people just to get over the hump.”

Absent that, Carumba is putting her faith in a different higher power.

"The only thing that I have right now is my faith and my courage to fight,” she said. “I know that I'm going to make this."