FARGO — When Jason Ehlert set up the food drive at the Fargo-Moorhead Labor Temple, he didn’t expect the need to be as great as it was.
People showed up at 8 a.m. Monday, Feb. 22, for a 30-pound box of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and milk, hours before the noon event was to start. As a line of cars threatened traffic flow on First Avenue North, Ehlert and the volunteers on hand opened the gates early to begin handing out free food.
“We had so many cars lined up so we had to start at 11,” said Ehlert, president of the Red River Valley Building Trades Unions. “And it’s just been all over the place. There is a great need. I am shocked.”
Ehlert stopped counting cars at 300, he said. Holding up a bag of chocolate Kisses, a gift from a grateful recipient, he said the people coming in for the food ranged from young to elderly, and nearly everyone was thanking him and offering blessings.
The scene is not unique to Fargo. It's one that's played out throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as unemployed or underemployed Americans line up in their cars at food giveaways from New Jersey to California seeking help.
Some of the people in line for one of the 1,300 boxes of food had lost their jobs due to the pandemic. The food drive was organized by the Saint Paul Regional Labor Federation, the North Dakota AFL-CIO and the Red River Valley Building Trades Unions.
Darrold Vaughn, 25, from Fargo, lost his job at a local big box store this month.
“I got fired from my job due to COVID. It’s been tough,” Vaughn told The Forum. “Now I’m just trying to figure out food and rent. There’s a lot of fear. I don’t fear the disease and the media is telling us to fear it. We’ve got to trust in God, we can’t trust in man for the vaccine.”
Ten veterans contacted the Veterans Administration for help receiving the food, said Diana Hall, homeless programs manager for the Veterans Administration in North Dakota and western Minnesota. A social worker picked up the boxes, a total of 300 pounds of food, for the veterans, some of whom have difficulty finding transportation, Hall said.
“People who are in poverty or on limited incomes have had increased difficulty accessing food and healthy food. One of the things that is difficult for veterans to obtain is healthy food,” Hall said. “It’s really almost like a perfect storm as far as living poorly, losing what income they have had, lacking adequate transportation, lacking healthy foods. It’s really hard on everybody."
Salena Rock and Samantha Grow, both 20-year-olds from Fargo, said the food will help them stave off hunger while they work multiple jobs trying to save enough for rent.
“When COVID first hit I lost my job, but thank God my mom was here to help me,” said Rock, who used to work as a waitress. “After the second shutdown, I couldn’t get a job and I used all my savings just to survive.”
She’s now working three part-time jobs, one of which is helping people buy groceries, called "Instacarting," she said.
Grow ate through her savings by summer 2020, she said, and then started donating plasma to make ends meet before landing a part-time job with the North Dakota Autism Center.
“We’re stuck in this endless paycheck-to-paycheck life, but events like this do help. Every penny counts,” Grow said.
The months spent at home because of the pandemic led to depression, Grow said. “I’ve realized that mental health matters a lot more than I thought. We found ourselves sometimes wishing for death, but taking care of people you love also helps,” she said.
A month before the pandemic hit North Dakota, Rock lost her father.
“Being trapped in my home didn’t help my mental health, but it did give me lots of time to think,” Rock said.
“It’s a bad day, but not a bad life,” Rock said was the conclusion she came to. “That was 2020 for all of us. I don’t have any expectations for this year, but hopefully 2021 will be better.”