Erika Chambers was confident that with careful budgeting she could support her family when she separated from the father of her three children in spring 2020.
Then the pandemic hit.
During the shutdown, the single mother worked from her home in Palmer, Alaska, and attended college full-time. She was employed as a program manager for an early education facility, but the center occasionally closed in response to positive COVID-19 cases.
In addition, her children’s schools closed. Between work obligations and class assignments, she helped her oldest son with virtual learning and her middle child with virtual preschool while keeping her youngest entertained.
Unpredictable expenses and short-term layoffs took a toll on the family’s finances. Nothing made Erika feel more vulnerable than to open her cupboard and find it empty.
“Food insecurity was worse when my kids didn’t get breakfast, lunch and a snack at school,” she says. “Those things didn’t fit into my budget at all.”
Her middle child’s preschool teacher suggested she visit a food pantry in her neighborhood.
That made all the difference.
“I went from wondering how I was going to piece together dinner to a fully stocked fridge and pantry,” she says.
At first, Erika was ashamed that she couldn’t provide food for her children without help. To give back as much as she could, she and her two older children volunteered at the food pantry once a week.
“All of 2020 was a reality check for me,” she says. “We lived comfortably until we didn’t. No family should be in a situation where they can’t eat.”
While working with families at the early childhood center, Erika realized that her family was also eligible for SNAP benefits. Food assistance allows her to purchase foods that her kids can safely eat. One child has a gluten intolerance; another is allergic to corn.
“I can pick foods I know my kids will eat and are good for them,” she says. The food assistance allows her to put her paycheck toward other bills like rent, utilities, gas and tuition.
Erika expects to earn her bachelor’s degree within the next year. It’s been a rough year, but she hopes that her children have learned that support is available when it’s needed – and that tough times will not last forever.
“Now if my kids say they’re hungry, it doesn’t make me feel bad. I know I have food to feed them. It just means I lost track of time,” she says.