Mom works hard to keep her boys fed

Wilma Coto says grace as her sons, from left, Jancarlos, 6, Giovanni, 8, and Jonathan, 9, sit down to dinner as a family at their home, a duplex apartment in Norwich Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011.
Wilma Coto says grace as her sons, from left, Jancarlos, 6, Giovanni, 8, and Jonathan, 9, sit down to dinner as a family at their home, a duplex apartment in Norwich Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011.

Norwich - Wilma Cotto opens her freezer to show its contents: two large loaves of ShopRite white bread and three plastic bags of chicken parts she had divided from a single larger package.

"It used to be fuller," she says.

A couple of months ago, the bread and chicken would have shared space with a half gallon of ice cream and maybe a large frozen cheese pizza, weekend treats she and her three young boys would have enjoyed over a movie rented from a Redbox machine.

"The goodies are not there now," she says one recent weekday afternoon, at home in her two-bedroom duplex apartment for a break between visits to the handicapped and elderly patients she cares for as a home health aide.

Just over a year ago, Cotto joined a segment of the population that has been increasing dramatically. From 2007 to 2011, the number of state residents in households receiving food stamps increased by 78 percent. In Norwich alone, the numbers jumped 94 percent.

Cotto's monthly food stamp allotment started at about $650, but declined as she began working, at first only a few hours but gradually increasing to 25 to 30 hours a week.

Now, she receives $200 a month in federal food stamps, officially known as SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. To meet her $600-a-month food bill, she spends $400 of her earnings - $250 to $300 a week - plus some of the funds from child support payments from her ex-husband.

She expects her food stamp allotment to drop further in the next few weeks after her periodic income review with SNAP administrators.

"It's been pretty hard," she says of the adjustment to the $200 food stamp allotment. "You don't buy as many things, and you're always looking for the lowest prices."

Her long dark hair pulled into a tight bun, framing her pretty, round face, Cotto wears the white pants and medical smock of the job she loves with the same pride she takes in her tidy apartment. She's eager to tell about bargains she found at second-hand appliance and furniture shops to fill it.

"To me, it's a mansion," says Cotto, 35, a victim of domestic violence who is now divorced and living on her own for the first time. "My kids have a yard to play in. Having a stable home for my boys is very important."

One cup of rice apiece

Inside Cotto's refrigerator, a half-gallon of low fat-milk stands on the top shelf, two-thirds empty after just one day. A few potatoes, plucked from the expired produce discount rack, occupy another shelf, along with some eggs. Tucked in a door compartment, a package of cheese product slices, bearing a bright orange "99 cents" sticker, sit next to a few four-ounce cups of yogurt that will be snacks for her growing sons, Jancarlos, Giovani and Jonathan Malave, ages 6, 8 and 9, between meals or after the youth basketball league she takes them to on Fridays and Saturdays. For a bedtime snack, she usually gives them peanut butter and bread.

"I don't buy a lot of fruits and vegetables, because they're expensive, and they spoil, and I don't want to waste anything, not even a little bit," she says. "But I do buy broccoli and potatoes, and apples when they're on special. They're not too bad."

Her cupboards tell much the same story - not empty, but far from overflowing. There are Ramen noodles, some cans of red beans, corn and other vegetables, pancake mix, instant coffee and a large bag of Cocoa Dyno Bites cereal she bought on sale at four for $6, among other items. White rice, a dinner staple in many Hispanic homes like hers, is measured out for each meal, she said, so everyone gets one cup each.

"I don't think it's enough, but I give them what I can afford," she says. "They're boys, and they need to eat and eat."

Cotto first applied to receive food stamps in 2010, guided by the counselors at the Thames River Family Program who helped get her and her sons out of a homeless shelter, into transitional housing and, ultimately, into her own apartment.

"Certainly, we are seeing more people from various walks of life who now either qualify because they have lost employment or because they meet the income limits, which were raised a couple of years ago to be more inclusive," said David Dearborn, social services department spokesman. "SNAP benefits help many thousands of working families and individuals."

The assistance, now issued as a debit card that is replenished monthly rather than as paper vouchers, pays only for food meant to be served at home. Hot prepared foods, non-food household necessities such as toilet paper, toothpaste and laundry soap, are not covered, nor are pet food, beer or cigarettes, vitamins or medicines.

Even with the limitations and strict income checks and re-checks, food stamps are a big help to many working poor and unemployed families, says Lee Ann Gomes, social services supervisor for Norwich. She wishes more people who qualify would sign up, but some are reluctant because they believe there's a social stigma against it. Others don't want to go through the hassle of having their rent and utility bills and paycheck stubs scrutinized in the qualification process.

"It's one of the most under-utilized programs," Gomes says. "All the time, we're encouraging people to apply. But it is meant to be a supplemental program, not the whole food budget."

Even with food stamps, many families still struggle to keep their larders stocked with nutritious food, Gomes says.

"Two boxes of macaroni and cheese for a dollar is cheaper than ingredients for a salad, and soda is cheaper than milk," she says. "Families know how to stretch their budget. They just can't afford the higher quality things."

Winter is especially tough, as utility bills rise.

"Your food budget is the only thing you can shrink in the winter," she says. "Poor kids do tend to lose weight in the winter."

Some families turn to food pantries, especially towards the end of the month, when the food stamp allotment is spent. About half the 300 or so families who go to the St. Vincent de Paul Place food pantry in Norwich each month also receive food stamps, says Harold Linder, food pantry coordinator.

"Many of the people who come here do work, they just don't make enough," he says.

Cotto says she hasn't turned to food pantries as yet, but would if she needed to to keep her boys fed. This winter, making ends meet has been challenging. With rent bills of $415 a month, utilities running about $270 a month and car insurance and other bills to pay, any fluctuation in her income or unexpected expense is especially difficult. But that happened several times these last few months.

In December, she became ill and had to go to the emergency room. Her mother traveled from New Jersey to help with the boys.

Several days passed before doctors determined that a combination of migraine headaches and a reaction to blood pressure medications was the cause. They adjusted her prescriptions accordingly. Cotto missed several days work, and because she works per diem and has no paid sick days, lost some income. Another day was lost when one of her boys was too sick to go to school.

Then there were repair bills on her 1994 Nissan Sentra, and more work days missed when her car was in the shop. She's already planning to put this year's income tax refund toward a second-hand car. One day, she'd like to return to college to finish her nursing degree.

'Very grateful'

Even as hard as everyday life can be sometimes, Cotto keeps her eye on the bigger picture of how far she and her boys have come.

The support the Thames River Family Program gave her and her family, and continues to provide when she needs parenting advice or some other help, has made all the difference in her life. She wants others to know that there is help for struggling families, that it's OK to accept help, and that it's worth it for your children. During the holidays, she helped with what turned into a very successful collection at her church of blankets, pillows and toiletries for the program as a way of giving back. Part of Thames River Community Service, the program is funded by the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut.

"I'm very grateful," Cotto says. "I feel like I'm in a good place emotionally."

When she and her boys gather at the dining room table for dinner, she reminds them to be grateful, too.

"Who's going to pray?" she asks, as they begin a meal of leftover lasagna and leftover rice cooked with Vienna sausages, tomato sauce and sofrito.

Cotto bows her head and leads a simple grace.

As on other weekdays, this night's dinner is the only meal the three share at home. At Uncas Elementary School, about three-quarters of the 338 children come from homes with incomes that qualify them to receive free breakfast and lunch, and Jancarlos, Giovani and Jonathan partake with the rest of their classmates.

"If you don't have breakfast, take out your snake report and work on that," says Delfina Coombs, Giovani's second-grade teacher, addressing the eight of her 23 students who hadn't been in the breakfast line that morning.

As the eight take out the worksheets, Giovani sits at his desk, dipping a wheat bagel into a cup of cream cheese. His classmates munch on the other breakfast choices from the cafeteria - an egg, cheese and sausage quesadilla, a cinnamon roll, Mini Wheats cereal, a small package of graham crackers, regular or chocolate milk and apple juice.

One student crunches loudly on dry Mini Wheats, while another unwinds his cinnamon roll from its spiral shape, then dangles it in front of him as if it were a snake.

"Giovani is the leader of the pack today," Coombs announces, as the last mouthfuls of breakfast are consumed. She's referring to her system of rewarding good behavior by letting a student have first place in lines.

For Cottos and many other families, having breakfast and lunch provided at school both makes grocery shopping easier on the budget and makes it easier to say "no" to more expensive - and often less nutritious - items food companies use to entice children in the cereal and snack food aisles.

"Today, you want everything," Cotto says during a recent trip to ShopRite, smiling and shaking her head "no" as one of her boys hands her a box of Goldfish crackers in lunch-sized packets.

Turning her cart down the canned vegetable aisle, she reaches for two cans of pigeon peas, two of pink beans and one of corn and another of mixed vegetables. One of the boys sees a friend from school, and the two families exchange greetings.

A box of ShopRite rigatoni and a couple of cans of tomato sauce join the other items in the cart, now about half full. Cotto then reaches for two 50-ounce bottles of ketchup, on sale at $5.39 for both. "I have to buy ketchup every week," she says, laughing.

Jancarlos pipes up to tell about one of his recent school lunches: macaroni and cheese, French fries and juice.

"And I had ketchup by itself," the 6-year-old first grader says, grinning.

His mother adds: "I have to control the ketchup at home."

In the cleaning products aisle, Cotto stops for a bottle of Fabuloso laundry soap, one of the few items that day that would not be covered by food stamps. She opens the cap to let each of the boys take a whiff.

"Smelly, smelly," she says, passing the bottle under each nose.

In the meat and dairy section, Cotto picks up a dozen eggs, a package of ShopRite shredded cheese she will add to bowls of pasta, some pork chops at $1.99 per pound - her boys' favorite - a package of five drumsticks for $1.75 and a couple of other items.

"My kids are not big meat eaters," she says.

Now, at 6:30 p.m., the winter skies already dark, Cotto's shopping for the week is done and she's ready to check out. The total comes to $129.39. She swipes her food stamp card, then reaches into her wallet for the $2.12 not covered by the card.

She pushes the cart across the dark parking lot to her car. The two older boys help her pack the bags into the trunk. Jancarlos, on his mother's instructions, climbs into the back seat.

"Jonathan, be careful with the eggs," she says.

j.benson@theday.com

Jonathan Malave opens up a breakfast sandwich at his desk as he takes part in the school breakfast program at the Uncas Elementary School in Norwich Wednesday Dec. 7, 2011.  All three of Wilma Cotto's sons take part in the school's breakfast program before the start of each school day.
Jonathan Malave opens up a breakfast sandwich at his desk as he takes part in the school breakfast program at the Uncas Elementary School in Norwich Wednesday Dec. 7, 2011. All three of Wilma Cotto's sons take part in the school's breakfast program before the start of each school day.
Wilma Cotto walks her sons Jancarlos, Giovani and Jonathan in from the bus stop as they arrive home from school in Norwich late last year.
Wilma Cotto walks her sons Jancarlos, Giovani and Jonathan in from the bus stop as they arrive home from school in Norwich late last year.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Connecticut:

Recipients statewide in fiscal 2007: 195,090

Recipients statewide in fiscal 2011: 346,531

Increase from 2007 - 2011: 78 percent


Local households receiving food stamps in 2011, and total number of people in those households:

East Lyme: 354; 577

Griswold: 613; 1,200

Groton: 1,573; 3,043

Ledyard: 330; 649

Lyme: 21; 41

Montville: 645; 1,205

New London: 3,452; 6,450

North Stonington: 99; 174

Norwich: 4,225; 7,798

Old Lyme: 92; 137

Old Saybrook: 175; 310

Preston: 149; 248

Salem: 75; 137

Stonington: 685; 1,255
Waterford: 476; 811

Statewide: 188,176; 346,531

Monthly income limit for SNAP benefits by household size:

185 percent of Federal Poverty Level (gross income before taxes and deductions)

Single person: $1,680; maximum benefit $200 per month

Two-person: $2,268; maximum benefit $367 per month

Three person: $2,858; maximum benefit $526 per month

Four person: $3,447; maximum benefit $668 per month

Source: State Department of Social Services

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