School meals have become a lifeline for children of the more than 1 million Arizonans who have collected unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic, and the 400,000 who continue to collect them.
Latino children are the majority of Arizona school age children, and their families have been especially hard hit by job losses and pay cuts.
A recent UnidosUS survey of Latinos in Arizona, Florida and Texas indicated that 77 percent of Arizona Latinos surveyed said they or someone in their household experienced a pay cut, 48 percent lost gig or contract work, 45 percent lost a job and 30 percent closed a business they own.
“Latinos in Arizona are more likely to work in front line jobs in retail, hospitality, and tourism,” said Liz Salazar, policy advisor in Arizona for UnidosUS. “These generally aren’t the kind of jobs that can be done remotely. Latino families were hit hard by the closures as a result of the pandemic.”
“Latinos were more likely to return to work in places with higher chances for exposure,” Salazar said. “If a breadwinner was exposed to the virus, the already precarious economic stability of that family was dealt yet another blow.”
Latinos also are more likely to live in multi-generation households where the risks are high and the ability to quarantine an infected family member is nearly impossible, Salazar said.
“Latinos also make up a large number of Arizona’s small business owners and independent entrepreneurs, which is an amazing thing,” Salazar said. “However, when COVID-19 hit, these small enterprises took big hits. Ten percent of those we polled lost four streams of income. Losing one income source is destabilizing, let alone multiple.”
Forty percent of Arizona Latinos surveyed said they received food from local food banks, schools or community organizations.
“The power of our social safety net, including our school communities and nonprofit programs, has always been remarkable, but this crisis has revealed that these programs help to literally save lives when all else fails,” Salazar said.
“A food insecure student cannot learn. Anyone who has taught a class right before lunch knows that hungry kids have a hard time learning,” Salazar said. “However, chronically hungry or malnourished kids don’t just fail to learn a few lessons, they fail to thrive in general.
“These nutrition programs are absolutely essential to ensure we mitigate the learning loss and trauma our kids, especially our most vulnerable kids, will have to surmount in the coming school year,” Salazar said.
When the $600 additional weekly unemployment benefit from the federal government was not renewed, 60 percent of Arizona Latinos surveyed said they would not be able to pay for basic expenses like rent, food and utilities.
A $300 supplement from the federal government added to Arizona’s $240 a week unemployment insurance benefits ended this week, and when asked if he will increase unemployment benefits Gov. Doug Ducey said in a news conference last week “It’s on Congress.”
“Without aid from Congress, I am afraid we’ll see the economic effects of this pandemic continue to ripple through our communities,” Salazar said. “These families are having to make inconceivable choices – what bills to pay, whether or not they can cobble together a nutritious meal for their family, what their contingency plan is when the eviction moratorium ends.”
“Parents everywhere are struggling with the challenges of online school, hybrid learning, and chaotic schedules. However, for a lot of our students, especially our Black and Latino students, these struggles go much, much farther than that. They’re struggling to survive,” Salazar said.
School meals: A lifeline for many during COVID-19
Over half of survey respondents thought the governor and the state legislature should be held responsible, Salazar said.
“The governor never called a special session, and the legislators could not rally a consensus on reconvening, leaving many issues unresolved, including fixing the issues at DES and examining our unemployment benefits among others,” Salazar said.
Sixty-two percent of the respondents thought the unemployment agency directors and leadership should be held accountable.
“I assume this high number is due to the many difficulties Arizonans have experienced in trying to resolve issues with their claims and receive unemployment insurance,” Salazar said.
Teachers and school staff know that what happens in a classroom is only one component of an entire ecosystem that affects a student’s ability to thrive, Salazar said.
“Even on the best of days, Arizona had extreme issues of inequity in all of our state institutions, including the education system,” Salazar said. “Kids are resilient, but like adults, they’ll need a lot of grace as we all pull ourselves out of this.”
The community needs to rally to overcome these obstacles, Salazar said.
“Taking care of ALL people in Arizona shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Taking care of one another is the only way we’ll make it out on the other side of this better than we were before,” Salazar said.