Inside One Couple's Daily Struggle to Feed Their Four Children During the Pandemic

'Honestly, I didn't want to let my children down. And I was really scared because obviously I have five people to take care of. Honestly, I didn't know what I was going to do.'

Edward Willis, 24, and Paulina Lopez, 26, have four children between the ages of 1 and 8. When they lost their income due to the pandemic, they faced themselves in a desperate struggle to make sure their children had food to eat and a place to sleep each day. The Los Angeles County couple shared their emotional journey through food and housing insecurity to hope with NBCLX’s Jeremy Berg. This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Berg: Tell me about your family. How many kids do you have and where are you guys from?

Lopez: All together we have four children.

Willis: We met in Pomona, grew up in Pomona, kind of bounced around due to us still being young and we were still with our parents until [we were] around 17, 18. And we’ve kind of been on our own ever since.

Berg: Can you tell me about your financial situation and what happened during the pandemic that might have made it more difficult for you guys?

Lopez: Well, in the start of the pandemic, our rent was actually raised as well – around the same time in March – and then he ended up losing his job.

Willis: Due to the pandemic.

Lopez: So then we pretty much hit a wall and we were given a three day pay or quit notice and we just had to exit our apartment because we didn't want an eviction. So then, you know, bouncing around, we were living in our car for a while and then we went to motels.

Willis: You know, trying to afford $70 a night for the most part, or sometimes it would be like 500 a week. And trying to afford that was pretty difficult, not having a job. And I barely started collecting the unemployment then.

Berg: Edward, what did you do for work before you got laid off?

Willis: I was doing security and Door Dash and Lyft, a little bit of all that. And then our car started breaking down, and then we sold it to get a cheaper car and we ended up getting a van right when we left – so we kind of just stayed in our van. The security, it was paying minimum wage, so trying to save in the midst of needing everything for our little ones and making sure that they’re fed and having diapers, hygiene and stuff – [it] was kind of hard to keep a lot of money on us.

Berg: And having four kids, someone needs to be with the kids at all times, right?

Willis: Absolutely.

Lopez: I'm the stay-at-home parent for right now, but our idea is to both be working, which obviously is a very hard situation given daycare is very expensive as well.

Berg: So, Edward, when you lost that job, what was going through your head?

Willis: Honestly, I didn't want to let my children down. And I was really scared because obviously I have five people to take care of. Honestly, I didn't know what I was going to do. So we were just trying every option I could, but honestly, it just got harder and harder.

Berg: Was there a moment you remember where it got to the point where you were worried about putting food on the table?

Willis: Yeah, it was actually a couple of nights like that.

Lopez: I think the craziest thing about that was that we kind of met this point where we were with literally nothing – like no car, no money, no food, no place to sleep. So we were just trying to get by. And the craziest part to me was… people that just came up to us and helped us pay for food or something. They saw us walking with our kids or something. And we never had a conversation with these people to tell them anything that was going on with us. They just knew, I guess. And it was just the most bizarre thing to me, because that was literally our only way of eating. But those people didn't know that at the time.

Berg: Did you ever think you'd be in a situation like this?

Lopez: Never, no. I couldn't even imagine this in my wildest dreams. So to actually have it happening, it was just unreal. And you're filled with fear in that moment because you don't know what the next step is. But you know, all you have to do is keep your faith and just keep going, because that's really all you have at that point.

Berg: Can you describe to me that first moment where you said we need to find a place that can give us some food? And what was the organization that really helped bring that food to you guys? 

Lopez: We were actually checking out of a motel... And these people at the motel, they said that they knew a place to go to get food for our children. And it was called God's Pantry.

Willis: And it's based out of Pomona, California. It's had a big role in our whole situation.

Berg: Did you have any fears doing that? Tell me how you felt about having to go to the pantry.

Lopez: I feel like it was more, kind of, embarrassment in a way.

Willis: Yeah, big embarrassment.

Lopez: Because, you know, it kind of felt like we couldn't provide for our children in these times... And, you know, you always fear judgment. That's really what it was.

Willis: Being the man, I kind of felt like I was going to be looked down upon because I had four little ones. You know, as a man's role, you're supposed to take care of your family and – it was the hardest thing to do.

Berg: What was your perspective on people that needed to go to food banks or get help with food insecurity? Or did you know what food insecurity was before you guys were forced in this situation?

Lopez: I don't think we called it food insecurity because I haven't heard of that until right now. But, yeah… I'm very familiar with it because, you know, my family experienced it before. But I was a child, so I didn't really understand the actual impact of it because it was up to my mom and my grandma to take care of that aspect. So now being in that position is, like, you really see it for what it is and it's like, oh my God, it's going on with so many people and just so many families.

Willis: When I was young, I experienced a little bit of it, but I didn't really catch on to it as much because I was still a child... And it was my mom's job to feed us. And it was my mom that was going to the pantries… But I didn't see it like this… Standing in the line waiting for food and looking around, there were other families too, but there weren’t other families as big as ours. And standing around looking at everyone, I kind of felt like I'm not the only one that needs the help, you know what I mean? There's other people out there too that are going through the same exact thing we're going through.

Berg: Is that comforting to know that?

Willis: Yeah, definitely.

Lopez: We've actually met a lot of good people standing in these lines... You get to really know people because people are very vulnerable right now as well, just like we are. So just being able to relate and having that sort of support, it's a feeling of reassurance in a way.

Willis: It did give us a little bit of comfort to know everyone else is together on this. In those lines, everyone is together.

Berg: What would you want to tell people that maybe aren't having these problems about what this is really like?

Lopez: I'll probably just tell them to be a little more open minded, because I feel like we have had experiences with people that aren't actually impacted and it's been very unkind… And it's not always a case of, oh, they're lazy or they're not doing enough or they can't take care of their kids. It's just more of like they are lacking in this aspect of trying to provide right now. And that's OK. For all the people that need help, it's OK to go get help.

Willis: I think from my point of view, I would say that everyone needs help sometimes. Not everything's perfect, not everything goes as planned… You’ve got to sit in everybody's shoes to understand.

Lopez: I think it's important to acknowledge that. Nothing is set to go the way that you think it's going to go. There's always something that can happen, you know, in an instant… When you don't think it can happen to you, it definitely can.

Berg: And how has it been with [your kids]? I'd imagine there's a balance – you have to let them know what's going on, but you also don't want them to know too much?

Willis: Well, our eight-year-old is too smart. And what I mean by that [is] he pays attention to every single thing.

Lopez: He has a lot of questions at his age. For instance, living in the car, he would be like, ‘Why can't we go home?’ And, like how you said, you would have to steer that away from him because you don't want to tell him too much because he's too young for that… And it's not their burden to put on their shoulders.

Willis: We try to make it look like camping for the most part or like, oh, we're just going on a trip. Because that's what people do when they go camping, they sleep in their cars or they have tents.

Berg: Did the food problem ever get to a point where you literally had no food or did it get close?

Willis: Yeah, we were there.

Lopez: We literally had nothing. We couldn't eat, we couldn't essentially sleep anywhere.

Willis: And most people think, oh, you have the county assistance, but we got cut off for some time. And because of the pandemic, it was so hard for them to even approve our food stamp case. So we were literally begging for change every night. And there was a couple of nights that we didn't eat because all I could get was food for the kids.

Lopez: We just always made sure that the kids, no matter what, had food and they had somewhere [to sleep]. So that was something that was difficult as well. But as hungry as you are… you can take it, but you're not sure if your kids can. So it's just better to put them first.

Berg: Tell me where you are now because it looks like you found a much better situation for yourself.

Lopez: It was actually through God's Pantry.

Willis: In the midst of all this, we met a very special person. Her name is Bonnie Brown and she works at God's Pantry. We were going there every single day… They give food, they give clothes, they give diapers, like everything you can imagine... She works at God's Pantry and they were helping us through the hardest time ever. Like when it was rock bottom, she was like the pillow.

Lopez: I feel like that's when we really realized the impact that this had on people, the pandemic, because all the resources were maxed out and there wasn't any more funding for certain programs. So we just kept calling different places, different places that we would be recommended, referred to or just looked up on Google. And so we ended up calling this place called Door of Hope, which is where we're at now. It's a shared housing program where you're able to live. And basically they push you to get employment – just to do all the things you need to to get back on your feet, to get into your own place.

Willis: There's like four or five other families here. And we share everything.  

Lopez: Well, with COVID restrictions.

Willis: We do chores, we do therapy, they have free therapy. They go over meetings every single week to see what we've done to progress.

Lopez: They also provide meals, three meals a day.

Willis: Yeah, three meals a day. And they don't ask for like an arm and a leg. They only ask for 10 percent of your whole income. And this place definitely has impacted us.

Lopez: It was kind of like a light at the end of the tunnel… Being in this situation is like a lot of people try to treat you like you're not a human being, you know, and so being here is a really different experience because… they welcome you, they want the best for you.

Willis: They try to make it like it's our home, you know, like it's our home.