Putting a Face on the Pandemic: A Local Reporter Finds Connection in the Struggle For Food

July 15, 2020 11:30

By Stephanie Bertini, Reporter & RTDNA Contributor
There are so many new developments, so many numbers, and so many angles: covering the pandemic is a heavy task for anybody who works in the news right now. For me, a local reporter in the Miami area, a good chunk of my focus is on the people directly impacted at the kitchen table by the financial toll of the pandemic. Through the lens of America’s food struggle, I am zeroing in on the community I cover to look past the daily COVID-19 headlines and focus on the individual faces that are struggling during this unprecedented time. As a general assignment reporter I cover the rest of the news too, but what started as a short-term project a few months back has grown into a weekly franchise that allows me to constantly bring authentic voices of those struggling with the basic necessity of food to the forefront. One look at the economy during this pandemic makes it clear that these voices will likely continue to multiply.
It was the beginning of May and the middle of my work week but on this day things got going much earlier than a nightside reporter is used to. I was out bright and early, mask on and dressed in the casual clothes I had specifically selected with the goal of blending into the crowd. I had parked a significant distance away from the food distribution site where I had come on a “journalism fishing trip.”
I was looking to catch some people willing to tell their stories for a weeklong project on how the financial toll of the pandemic was affecting people in South Florida with the expense of buying food. I walked alongside the long line of vehicles right up to the group of volunteers working the site. I found out who was in charge and quickly spit out my pitch. Clearly everyone was busy but I was on a mission. After indicating who I was and what I was trying to do, I was told that I could approach people after they received their food.
Almost everyone has seen images of long lines of vehicles waiting for free food during this pandemic. I walked to the end of this particular line and attempted to flag people down. It was a big task under the hot South Florida sun. I think every reporter and field producer can appreciate the extra challenge of the dynamic brought on by the need for social distancing. Most cars stopped but the drivers quickly took off when I identified myself as a reporter. Some listened to me long enough to know why I wanted to talk with them, and then drove off. Quickly I came to understand that this would be a lot harder than I thought.  
I was shocked to see how many people like me were in the line. When Sabrina Carrivain pulled over, I was a few hours in and becoming a bit more assertive. I saw her son in his car seat and used the common connection of motherhood to persuade her to give me a little time. She seemed frazzled but also relieved that someone had shown interest in how she was doing. As a fellow single mom of a toddler, I know how lonely it can feel when everything seems to be resting on your shoulders. The more she spoke, the more I found myself thinking, “wow, this could be me.” I learned that Carrivain is from France, but moved to the United States long before she became a mother, just like I moved from Canada for work before the responsibility of motherhood. We both know what it’s like not to have a big support system close by. She’s a hairdresser, a “non-essential” worker during this pandemic. She lost many weeks of pay when many businesses were forced to close in Florida. That was what made us different – the pandemic didn’t affect my ability to make money. In Carrivain’s case, her savings were gone. The financial toll of the pandemic was hitting her so hard that she had to resort to food distribution lines to keep food in the fridge.
For every person like Carrivain who has allowed me to profile them and their situation, many others have said no or backed out after initially agreeing. Asking people to open up about food insecurity is a tall request. I can only imagine what the struggle is like because in my life I have never had to deal with a limited access to healthy food. For me, food has always been plentiful, and today it is a constant reminder of my childhood. Growing up in a large Italian family food was always the focus of gatherings.
That part of my personal history was the beginning of my strong connection with Freddy and Penny Bravo. I understood why they felt awful about not being able to give their kids and grandkids delicious meals and snacks as easily as they had been able to before. They are hard-working people who, like my grandparents, always sacrificed to give their family a better life. Their low-income household couldn’t handle Freddy losing his job in the food service industry and Penny losing her domestic work cleaning houses. They had come to rely on free food sources, but still they were behind on bills and rent. I will never forget the moment when Penny looked into my eyes and told me how embarrassing this all was for her. She helped shape my understanding of the feelings of failure that come with asking for help to feed your family. It reminded me of my proud immigrant grandfather who would rather take on debt than not have fresh bread on the dinner table or a robust meal for my grandmother to cook on Sundays.
Mother and wife Monique Williams helped me understand that going to these food distribution lines is a great form of love. Before the pandemic, she and her husband were supporting their two small children on a dual salary and a disciplined budget. They never had excess money, and so when schools closed and they started to work from home during the pandemic, their finances couldn’t take the increase in power and light and grocery bills. Within a few months, their modest savings account was shrinking. Williams told me that she started allowing trips to small food pantries and food distribution lines to supplement her trips to the grocery store. That process also helped ease her anxiety over the fear that she or her husband could lose their jobs. A few months into the pandemic, she was looking all around at other families who had already been hit harder than hers. She was hoping her family wouldn’t end up in a situation where free food was their only choice. As I spoke to Williams, I found myself in awe of her commitment to her children and husband. I also found myself feeling extra gratitude for the fact that I could still pay for groceries without fear.
The weeklong project concluded with a look at the individuals and organizations that were helping to meet the growing demand for free food sources. The shoe-leather reporting that helped me open up Carrivain, the Bravos and Williams also helped me see the faces of those who were lending their time and donating resources. The series, called Helping Hands, aired from May 5th to 8th.
It was clear our work wasn’t done, so we decided to make Helping Hands a weekly series. I didn’t know then that I would continue to connect with each interview and story as I had with those initial people that I profiled. But that is exactly what’s happened.
I found myself remembering the more innocent version of me as I interviewed an 11-year old girl about the food struggle in her home. She also reminded me of the resilience of children as she complained about not having enough but expressed gratitude in the same breath over what she does have.
I found myself remembering my mid-20’s reporting along the U.S.-Mexico border as I interviewed an undocumented woman about the scarcity in her life brought on by this pandemic. Because of that experience, there was no need for her to explain to me why asking for help was terrifying. The cash jobs she and her husband had been taking on to feed their four children had become hard to come by. Food distribution lines were turning them away because they are drive-thru only, and this family can’t afford a vehicle.
Reporting on a mother who couldn’t afford baby formula reminded me of the exhaustion that comes with having a newborn. Interviewing a Catholic priest about the efforts of his church reminded me of growing up within the Catholic faith with that constant lesson about loving your neighbor. I can go on and on because this series has become so personal. Through this project I have learned that the story of the food struggle during this time is a story we can all relate to.  
NBC 6 viewers have proved that to be true. The amount of feedback that I receive via social media, email and phone calls to the station is astronomical. Again and again, I am seeing our community with these stories. That connection has created something I am so touched by: people helping people, neighbors helping neighbors. Week after week, I have seen NBC 6 viewers become helping hands.
Many stepped up to help the Bravo family, including the kiddie baseball team Freddy was coaching before the pandemic. One of the parents saw my story on television, and had the team show up at the Bravo’s house with food donations. A local businessman who wanted to remain anonymous gave single mother Sabrina Carrivain $1,000. It brought her – and me – to tears. That mother who couldn’t afford formula was given a good supply, along with diapers and other baby things from NBC 6 viewers who just wanted to help. Donations to the organizations we feature flow after they are highlighted in the series.
Throughout my career I have produced stories that have received great recognition but what is happening with this series is beyond that. The series is giving me real life examples of how my journalism is bringing change to my local community on a weekly basis. It is arguably the most tremendous thing I have done in my career to date. And for now, it is something I will continue to do as the financial toll of the pandemic continues to affect so many people at the kitchen table.
You can follow the series here: nbc6.com/helpinghands