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‘If coronavirus doesn’t get us, starvation will’: A growing number of Americans say they can’t afford to stock up on groceries

Patricia Brown, 69, who lives on a fixed income, stands in front of an empty milk cooler at the Aldi in Burlington, N.C., on Wednesday during the coronavirus pandemic. For those living on a fixed income, it can be difficult to afford to stock up on groceries for weeks at a time, especially when many of the cheaper items are out of stock. (Ben McKeown for The Washington Post)

She was running out of food, but Patricia Brown had to wait.

She waited until the third Wednesday of the month, the day her Social Security check landed in the bank, before she got into her Nissan and drove to the local supermarket in search of a few basics: spaghetti, ground beef and distilled water for her sleep apnea machine.

But by the time she’d arrived, all of those items were gone. It had been over a week since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had urged Americans like her — older, with chronic health conditions — to “stock up” and stay home because of the deepening coronavirus crisis, which was upending every aspect of daily life and shutting down entire cities. The president even went on TV to urge people to avoid gatherings of more than 10.

But like millions of Americans on fixed incomes, who rely on social security, disability checks or food stamps to buy necessities each month, Brown doesn’t have much of a choice. It is nearly impossible, she says, to stock up on food, medication or other necessities beyond what she would normally buy.

“Of course I would’ve liked to buy groceries sooner,” said Brown, 69, a retired courtroom clerk in Burlington, N.C. “But I’m only getting checks once a month. Once that’s gone, I’m broke until the next one comes.”

As layoffs skyrocket, the holes in America’s safety net are becoming apparent

Across the country, already-struggling Americans are being urged to buy more at one time and embrace social distancing to help slow the outbreak’s spread. At the same time, supermarkets are getting picked over, as panic-stricken consumers snap up rice, pasta, beans and canned vegetables — the kind of inexpensive staples that Brown has learned to stretch into a month’s worth of meals.

White House officials are considering various emergency measures to help Americans, including sending $1,000 checks directly to workers in coming weeks. But while that money may provide temporary relief — and enough cash to pay for groceries and other expenses short-term, many say it would not provide long-term security at a time when jobs are drying up and the economy teeters toward recession.

More than 37 million Americans — or about 1 in 9 people — struggled to put food on the table in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That number could soon double as the outbreak wreaks havoc on workers around the country, said Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating officer of Feeding America, a nonprofit that oversees 200 food banks. Already, companies like Marriott International, MGM Resorts and Caesars have signaled plans to shed thousands of jobs as hotels, restaurants and retail shops suspend or curtail business to wait out the worst of the pandemic. On Thursday, jobless claims jumped 33 percent to 281,000, and economists say that number could jump eightfold this coming week.

Food banks, she said, are seeing anywhere from two to four times the number of people they typically serve. Thousands are queuing up at drive-up food pantries in Texas, Virginia, Michigan and beyond.

“This pandemic is changing the face of food insecurity in America,” she said. “It’s an incredible challenge: At the same time that demand is spiking and people are in need, food is becoming very difficult to get.”

Food banks are seeing volunteers disappear and supplies evaporate as coronavirus fears mount

Brown drove to her local Aldi on Wednesday morning. She put on a pair of disposable gloves and piled her cart with two cases of dried ramen, two boxes of rice, frozen flounder, and canned chicken, green beans and corn. “I wanted fresh tuna but it was too expensive — $8 or something,” she said. Instead, she picked the 95-cent version in a can and splurged on a $2.29 tin of pink salmon. She spent $109 in all.

“A lot of stuff that isn’t popular — the organic noodles, the fancy bread — stays on the shelves,” Brown said. “But that doesn’t work for someone like me, on a budget.”

A ‘humbling experience’

More than 1 in 5 U.S. families receives some form of government assistance every month, a number that could grow rapidly in coming weeks as retailers, restaurants and hotels lay off thousands of service workers who already live paycheck to paycheck. The average Social Security payment is about $1,500 a month, while disability checks average less than $1,300. For many people, that has to cover all other expenses — housing, utilities — on top of groceries.

Since the first U.S. case of covid-19 was reported in late January, nearly 1 in 5 U.S. workers have been laid off or had their hours reduced because of the coronavirus, according to a recent poll by NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist. Economists say more than 1 million Americans are expected to lose their jobs by the end of March, creating an entirely new category of Americans who are suddenly struggling to make ends meet.

The first U.S. layoffs from the coronavirus are here

Things were going well for David Anthony. He had a steady job at a warehouse that specializes in commercial sinks and shelving. He operated a forklift and made $13.30 an hour.

But he got laid off two weeks ago as the outbreak obliterated demand. A temp agency placed him at a factory that made pancake batter mix, but two days later, he got a pink slip there, too.

“I’m trying to find employment, but everything — and I mean everything — is being shut down because of this virus,” Anthony, 39, said.

He and his wife and children, ages 2 and 4, are living at an EconoLodge in Effingham, Ill., where they pay $291 a week. Most of their meals — consisting mostly of canned potatoes, green beans and SpaghettiOs purchased with food stamps — are cooked on an electric skillet or slow cooker in their motel room.

“Talk about a humbling experience,” he said. “Now we’re buying food as we go because shelter has become our main priority."

Anthony’s wife, he said, was making $9.25 an hour cleaning motel rooms. But bookings have dried up, creating more uncertainty.

The family has cut back on meat and fresh produce. Now Anthony, who has weathered periods of homelessness since he was 17, is wondering whether his family will soon be out of a place to live.

“All my kids’ lives, they’ve had a roof over their heads,” he said. “But now we’re worried: Will we have to go back to homeless camping? We still have our three-bedroom tent.”

Days without food

“Forget stocking up,” Brandy Eggleston, 27, said. The best she and her family can do right now is try to survive.

Her household in Durham, N.C. — which includes her mother and stepfather, both on disability — doesn’t have consistent running water. But every supermarket in town is sold out of bottled water.

“We don’t have a car, so it’s hard to even get to the store,” she said. That requires asking a friend for a ride or paying Uber $13 for the five-mile trip. “And by the time we get to the store, everything is already picked over.”

As was the case Wednesday. The shelves at Walmart were nearly empty. She spent $34 on fish sticks, tangerines, frozen pancakes and syrup.

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“We’re on a very, very fixed income,” she said. “With everything that’s going on, that’s made it even harder to buy the things we need to.”

That’s also true in the Chicago suburbs, where the food pantries Sandra Lotz relies on have been stripped bare. The 60-year-old, who spent decades as a medical transcriptionist, had to stop working because of spinal stenosis and multiple myeloma, a form of bone and blood cancer.

Now she has two weeks to go before her $1,200 disability check arrives, and no money for groceries.

“We’ve been without food for four days,” she said. “People are panicking. I’m disabled with no vehicle and don’t know what to do."

Lotz, who supports her two adult children, recently went to the supermarket with $2, hoping to pick up a loaf of bread or a box of pasta for a few days’ worth of meals. But the shelves were largely bare.

“It was like the apocalypse was coming,” she said. “I needed cheap bread — you know, the kind that tastes like sawdust — and all they had was $4 and $5 loaves of Pepperidge Farm. If coronavirus doesn’t get us, starvation will."