New York sits down to dinner

April 27th, 2016  |  Published in Uncategorized

Language makes a 12-year-old the family grocery shopper

By Timmy Shen

It is 3:15 p.m., and 12-year-old William is running an errand in the Bronx to buy seafood, because his younger brother’s godparents are coming over for dinner. There’s enough on the EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card for a special dinner: His family’s going to have shrimp.

William’s stepfather, Juan Perez, has a job at a grocery warehouse, but his $2,200 monthly income isn’t enough to feed his family of five – his wife, his stepson, and William’s half-siblings, who are two-and-a-half and one year old. He gets $400 in food stamps and utilizes a food pantry, in a neighborhood particularly hard hit by hunger: One in six New York City residents, and one in three Bronx children, live in food insecure homes, according to a 2014 survey of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

Juan Perez, a Mexican immigrant, works six days a week at a warehouse. Photo: Timmy Hung-Ming Shen.

Juan Perez, a Mexican immigrant, works six days a week at a warehouse. Photo: Timmy Hung-Ming Shen.

Growing up in the Bronx, William is the best English-speaker in the household, and because of that he’s a 12-year-old grown-up in many ways. He started to shop for his family at the age of 10. With his mother’s instruction, William was on a mission to buy shrimp at a nearby fish market with the EBT card, a “debit” card that their food stamp benefits are put on each month.

“My mom usually cooks soup, vegetables, meat and fish at home,” said William. “But today she’s making a sauce with shrimps with nachos.”

“I don’t think it (food stamp benefits) is enough, but something is something,” said his stepfather, who speaks limited English. His wife occasionally sells beauty supplies to their neighbors to add to the family’s income. “That’s not a stable income,” said Perez, with a shrug.

Perez is luckier than some. Between 500,000 and one million of the country’s poorest people will be cut from the food stamp program in 2016, according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Unemployed adults aged 18-49 who are not disabled or raising minor children could be cut off, starting this month.

Although finance is an issue, the family occasionally manages a restaurant meal. “Sometimes on weekends, we go out and eat as a family,” said William raising his voice. “My father drives us to New Jersey for Italian food,” he said, adding that they go there about once a month.

The monthly visit to the food pantry also helps the family get enough fresh produce. “The food could last us for a week or so,” said William.

“It saves money,” Perez added.

William looks up to his stepfather. “He makes my little brother and sister laugh. This makes me really happy because that’s one thing that a man couldn’t always do,” said William.

William has shopped for food for the entire family since the babies were born, so that his mother can stay home with them. He usually goes to the nearby Modern Market for fresh produce.

Even with SNAP benefits and the food pantry, Perez needs to find an additional source of income. “It’s absolutely hard. I want to send this guy to a university,” said Perez, pointing at William. “I plan to work two jobs in the near future,” he added. Perez is not sure what kind of a second job he will land, but it will likely be physical labor. He’s also working with a lawyer to help him deal with the risk of reduced or losing SNAP benefits if his income increases.

Leaving the fish market with a bag of shrimp at hand, William slips the EBT card back to his pocket. For him, the special dinner also served as an energizer. Earlier, at school, he began the state’s English Language Arts standardized test, the first of three days in a row. Dinner was going to be a tasty distraction. “I like Mexican food a lot!” he said, his eyes wide with delight.

Timmy Hung-Ming Shen is an M.S. student at Columbia Journalism School, where he covers education, ethnic communities and food. Previously, he interned at PBS in Taiwan and Radio Moreeni in Finland. Back in his homeland Taiwan, he received a B.A. in journalism from National Chengchi University. He loves to cook Chinese/Taiwanese food and is addicted to hot pot. Follow him on Twitter at @timmyshen0716 or email him at hs2859@columbia.edu.

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