LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
This is the story of a remarkable single mother. Early on in the pandemic, Xiomy De la Cruz was working at a fast-food restaurant when her work hours were cut back. So as NPR's Brenda Leon reports, she decided to open a food pantry to serve local families, many of whom are undocumented.
BRENDA LEON, BYLINE: Xiomy De la Cruz is a Peruvian refugee single mother with two children and another on the way. Like many families, she found herself in various pantry lines to make ends meet.
XIOMY DE LA CRUZ: (Through interpreter) So I said to myself one day, why not fill up my car with food and take it to my house? Because so many moms don't have access to a car for transportation. I filled up the whole van and put a free food sign on my door.
LEON: De la Cruz began collecting food, diapers and milk and started distributing them to friends and neighbors. She called it La Bodeguita de la Gente or The People's Little Corner Store. For six months, she stored everything in her Hartford living room.
DE LA CRUZ: (Through interpreter) My living room, my entrance, my porch became The People's Little Corner Store. I no longer had a table. I no longer had armchairs because more donations were coming in. People began to know about the store.
LEON: Many of the families who knocked on her front door are undocumented, severely impacted by the pandemic and who were ineligible for U.S. federal COVID-19 assistance. The food pantry quickly outgrew her living room, and she borrowed a space in what she describes as the heart of Hartford's Latino and immigrant community.
LEON: On a recent Thursday afternoon, nearly 10 families are lined up at La Bodeguita de la Gente. Ingmar Riveros signs up families patiently waiting in the parking lot right outside the entrance of their storage area. Over a table, he hands a packed bag with rice, beans, sugar and instant corn flour, the food base of a Latino family. Food insecurity has nearly tripled among households with children during the pandemic, and Black and Hispanic families are more likely to experience this.
INGMAR RIVEROS: Basically, a meal for your Thanksgiving.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: OK, great.
LEON: For many undocumented parents who have lost their jobs, pantries and food banks are a lifeline to alleviate economic stress. What began as a food basket distribution to 20 families now helps 150, many with young children. Mabel Romero arrived from Honduras with her children a year and a half ago, and she lost her job early in the pandemic. Her family was ineligible for benefits that could prevent hardship.
MABEL ROMERO: (Through interpreter) Because of the pandemic, this was the right place for many of us to go. There were many of us who didn't have jobs, especially immigrants, because in this country, it seems that we don't count.
LEON: She says she also became part of a community of families who share resources, information but, most importantly, mutual support. De la Cruz prides herself in having built that community of families and a rapid response network that now not only distributes pantry items every week but also addresses other urgent needs like immigration updates and domestic violence prevention resources.
DE LA CRUZ: (Through interpreter) The only dream I would ever ask for is to put up a refuge home so that the families who have just arrived here can at least have food.
LEON: De la Cruz says she dreams of creating a home for refugee families facing hardship. In the meantime, she helped many have a meal this Thanksgiving. For NPR News, I'm Brenda Leon in Hartford, Conn.
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