What will Jo-E Petros and her four daughters eat for dinner tonight? Will they share a single frozen dinner? Will it be ramen noodles again? There are days when Petros herself doesn't even know the answer to that question. Now, those days are happening more often.
Petros relies on food stamps to fill her cupboards. She works 60 hours a week at minimum wage to pay the rent and utility bills, so when her food stamps didn't come through on the third of the month, the family was left in dire shape. "One of my daughters loves pomegranates, and to go out and buy a pomegranate for five bucks right now, I can't afford to do. And to actually look at my children and tell them I'm sorry, I don't know what we are going to eat tonight, is something that really hurts my heart," says Petros.
After speaking with the Department of Social Services, Petros found out she would have to wait 10 days just to see if her stamps were coming. "She shrugged her shoulders and said, I'm really sorry but there's not a lot we can do. Three thousand people re-certified, we don't have the manpower, computer system is crashing twice, three times this month already. You're just going to have to wait," says Petros.
When those 10 days were up, she got the bad news. Her stamps were not coming this month.
Living day to day has taken its toll on Petros and her daughters. Jo-E says she doesn't mind going without food, so that her kids can eat; but it distresses her when her oldest does the same. "She's making sacrifices for her younger sisters, and for a 12-year-old to make [those] type of sacrifices, so that her younger sisters can eat, is something that a 12-year-old shouldn't have to do," says Petros.
This has left Petros feeling inadequate as a mother. "To see my 12-year-old sacrifice for her younger sisters is really like, where did I fail, where did I go wrong, and why am I being punished," says Petros.
The fact of the matter is, Petros is not being punished. She's just one more case in a backlogged system. According to the Pueblo County Department of Social Services, they are under-staffed, under-funded, and operating with a computer system that is glitchy at best. Of the three, the lack of manpower is what is slowing things down the most. "Manpower is the greatest need in processing more applications for food stamps, medicaid and any other benefit people are eligible for," says Jose Mondragon, the director of the department.
Mondragon is sympathetic to Petros' plight, and the thousands of others seeking benefits. In December, dozens of volunteers came together to help erase the backlog in order to ensure everyone had food in time for Christmas. The reality, however, is that Christmas miracles can't happen every month.
Until the county lifts their hiring freeze, and the state finds money to pump into the system, things aren't likely to change for the better. "An already underfunded system coupled with the increased case loads is really contributing to what we're seeing today," says Mondragon.
While the Department of Social Services says it is doing all they can with the limited resources they've been given, it does nothing for the Petros girls empty bellies. However, for every family with a story like Jo-E's there is a family who did get their benefits this month.
So without food stamps, Jo-E started to look for alternatives. She tried food banks, but found that she needed to be on their list before the first of the month. Then she tried some churches, "the churches were like, we're really sorry but we're out of food," says Petros.
Petros has been getting assistance since her first daughter was born 12 years ago. She had been living in assisted housing until recently, when she wanted to finally get out on her own and make something of her life. Now, Jo-E will have to decide to pay her utility bills or use that money to buy food this month. "For a 6-year-old not to eat, really does hurt, it really does make me feel like I'm not succeeding as a mother," says Petros.