Parenting in the Pandemic

April 25, 2022

For many in our community, March 2020 is when “the village collapsed.” Over two years later, this is still the reality for countless parents across our counties. Financial hardship and food insecurity, among other things, have made it hard to get back on their feet – much less return to the “normal” others may be experiencing.  

Sarah is a single mom of two, who lost her job as a civil engineer shortly after shelter-in-place went into effect. She soon began coming to Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry for groceries to feed her then 4- and 6-year-olds. When we met with her a few weeks ago, she carefully loaded groceries into a stroller before stopping to talk about her experiences parenting during the last two years. “It’s very difficult to juggle a career, especially when there’s instability. You’re just on your own. My own family was too afraid to help.” 

Challenges of Pandemic-era Schooling  

A lack of support characterized the last year and a half of online school for both kids and parents. Caretakers across the globe can empathize with the constant balancing act Sarah describes: “It was very challenging to have two very young kids at home. I spent all my time figuring out remote schooling and food and taking the kids out to grassy fields to play.”  

Luckily, the recently passed Universal School Meals (USM) Program, which targets school children K-12, is already making a difference for Sarah’s children since they returned to in-person school in late 2021.  “It’s very helpful. It can cover breakfast and lunch for the kids, so it’s huge.” 

However, preschoolers are not covered by USM, so parents like Arlesia are left to pick up the slack and pack lunches. Arlesia and her 3-year-old daughter Juliana have been coming to Rosa Parks Pop-up Pantry for about 3 months, following a rough 2021 for the entire family. Arlesia, her husband, and Juliana all dealt with serious health scares last year, and Arlesia has been unable to find work since losing her job as a restaurant server and event planner in 2020. Preschool tuition is a financial strain while the family relies on her husband’s income, but for Arlesia, the impact school has had on Juliana is priceless. Her face glows with pride when describing Juliana’s progress in the last 10 months. 

“Tuition is rough, but it’s for my daughter. Especially in the past few years when kids haven’t had that much interaction with other kids, it’s really affecting their development. Just from August to now, I can’t believe how much she grew and developed.” 

Father and son pose with toy car and groceries on playground.Other parents are more hesitant to let go of remote or homeschooling. Farzad is the single dad of 3-year-old Mehdi, as well as a musician, small business-owner, and participant at Cesar Chavez Pop-up Pantry. Farzad watches his son drive a toy car around the playground and sighs, shaking his head when asked about in-person preschool. He doesn’t “want Mehdi to go until COVID is over,” citing health concerns like maskless and unvaccinated children.  

Self-Care and Systemic Change 

Despite the struggles and uncertainty of the past two years, parents seem generally hopeful about the future – and a chance to tend to their own needs and wants, as well as their children’s.  

Arlesia pauses when asked what she would do with some free time. “I haven’t focused on my health because I’m making sure the rest of the family is taken care of. I love doing crafts and photography, things with my hands. It drowns out all the concerns because you’re focused on making something beautiful.” She smiles. “I try to keep it positive because at the end of the day, we’re going to make it.”  

Farzad is similarly optimistic, and excited for the revival of live music. “I play guitar, and I’m known for Persian flamenco — I pioneered it. I’ve been playing in the Bay Area since ‘85. I’ll be starting to gig again soon, hopefully. Things are changing. I’m seeing it already.”  

For Sarah, hope lies in systemic change and providing safety nets for caretakers.  

“COVID took more mothers out of the workforce than has ever happened since World War II. It really opened my eyes as to how the US doesn’t support caretakers. And if we can’t feed our kids, what kind of society are we, right?” 

Volunteering is a Family Matter

April 20, 2022

Walking through their new neighborhood in early January, 19-year-old Jiakuang and his mother Cui Wei noticed a group of volunteers busily preparing bags of food in the parking lot of Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church in Bayview. Salsa, rap, and pop music blared from a speaker, and the sun beamed down on volunteers as they packed bags, broke down boxes, and handed out groceries. The pace was quick, and the bags were heavy, but the mood was decidedly upbeat. 

“We live near here, and we saw them delivering the food. And we saw the [volunteers] were very tired because many people need to come here to get their food. So, we came to volunteer and help them,” said Jiakuang.  

They soon came to realize that this busy bustle of activity is routine for Cornerstone on Thursday mornings; Food Bankers and volunteers start to gather at 11am, chatting while waiting for the trucks. Once the trucks arrive, everyone springs into action: staffers expertly unload pallets from the trucks and volunteers coordinate assembly lines amongst themselves, quickly sorting rice before filling bags to the brim with fresh produce like broccoli, sweet potatoes, and oranges, and proteins like chicken breast. 

Meeting Their Neighbors 

This Pop-up Pantry, which is hosted by Cornerstone in partnership with the Food Bank, recently began inviting participants who had time to volunteer. Every Thursday, Jiakuang, Cui Wei, and often his father Mother and son duo volunteer at a food pantry.Wei Zong join other participant-volunteers in providing healthy groceries to their neighbors while also receiving food assistance themselves. For Jiakuang and his family, Thursday mornings at Cornerstone have been a time not only to receive and distribute food, but to mingle, talk, and laugh with other volunteers and food bankers.  

“We come here to make friends with others, and we tell our neighbors to come here and volunteer as well.” 

Thanks to other volunteers, Jiakuang was introduced to a non-credit course at the City College of San Francisco, which he is now enrolled in. He and his family have also been learning more about their new neighborhood by chatting with other neighbors, both volunteers and food bankers. “I’m new here, so I didn’t know too much about the US. I came to the pantry, and they told me about the City College. And when we talk with each other, I can practice my English, which is the most important [to me].” 

Rising Costs and Supply Chain Challenges  

Jiakuang and his parents first applied to come to the US in 2008. Just as they were making plans to finally secure visas in 2020, COVID-19 hit and caused the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China to close, forcing Jiakuang and his parents to delay their plans to immigrate to the US for two more years. In January 2022 they made the long-awaited trek from Guangzhou to San Francisco. While Jiakuang and his family continue looking for new jobs, the pantry has helped offset high food prices caused by inflation and supply chain issues.  

“We get food here, so we don’t have to get too much from the market. This [food pantry] reduces the burden because we are new here, and food is expensive.”  

Grocery prices in the Bay have increased by nearly 4% since December 2021, and the USDA predicts that prices will continue to rise throughout 2022. The chicken that Jiakuang looks forward to has been especially impacted by inflation – the price consumers are paying for poultry is predicted to rise another 4-7% in 2022. “My favorite meal is [chicken] drumsticks – my mom can make them really delicious with soy sauce and Coke.”  

You Can’t Learn When You’re Hungry 

For Jiakuang, an aspiring IT engineer whose current focus is preparing for the credit course in the fall, receiving food from Cornerstone gives him more time to dedicate to his studies. And he isn’t alone; as he notes, “many students are in the same situation as me.” 

Evidence backs this up: a recent study found that college students were 6 times more likely to experience food insecurity during the pandemic than their fully employed counterparts.  

It Takes a Community 

We know that healthy food is essential to student success, both in and outside of school. But we can’t underestimate the value of a healthy community. The participants, volunteers, and pop-up staff at Cornerstone all play a critical role in communicating, listening to, and meeting the needs of the neighborhood; it’s this kind of collaboration that is so vital towards building a hunger-free community.  

For Jiakuang, volunteering alongside his new neighbors means being part of the solution. 

“I think it’s meaningful. I wish more people would come here to volunteer because many people need to get food, and they can also contribute to the Food Bank.”