New London - Cynthia Kucsera arrived at St. James Episcopal Church's food pantry prepared.
She brought crayons for her 3-year-old daughter, Storm, and a stroller for her 1-year-old son, Kody.
Kucsera knew that the wait to get food at the pantry could be long, depending on what number she picked in a lottery.
On a recent Tuesday, Kucsera was lucky. She selected the number 10, so she would be called soon after the pantry opened its doors at 10 a.m.
For Kucsera, a married mother of six, the food pantry offers an opportunity to feed her family fresh fruit and vegetables that she normally can't afford. For a brief period, the pantry also spares her from the unwelcome choices she faces all the time: Replace the broken stove or fill the car with gas? Buy food or pay for heat?
Her life consists of finding ingenious ways to make her money stretch, to entertain the children without spending money and to maintain a home when there is little money to do so.
Kucsera's struggle is not uncommon. According to a recently released study, one in eight households in New London County cannot always afford the food they need.
In 2010, the food insecurity rate in New London County - the percentage of the population whose access to food was limited or uncertain - was 11.7 percent, the study found.
Nancy Rossi, managing executive of the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center, said the perception is that the people who are unemployed or live on entitlements are the only ones struggling to put enough food on the table.
"What we are finding ... is that people are underemployed," Rossi said. "Folks that come to our feeding sites or food pantries are a paycheck away, a car payment away from a financial crisis. Some things we hear is that they had an unexpected bill, an unexpected illness, or cutback in hours. ... Those are the things that can upset already fragile finances. They are making decisions to either feed their families or themselves or pay a bill."
Kucsera smiles and keeps a brave face as she talks about the challenges of raising a family on a limited income. She was born deaf in her left ear and has partial hearing loss in her right. She got a cochlear implant in 2010 to help with the hearing loss.
Kucsera, 43, and her husband, Jason, 40, have five children together: 8-year-old twins Coral and Savanna, 5-year-old Skye, 3-year-old Storm, and Kody, who turned 1 on Wednesday. Kucsera also has a 16-year-old son, CJ Dominique, from a previous relationship, who also lives with them in their modest home on Jefferson Avenue.
Making difficult choices
Kucsera said her family lives on a strict budget, accepting the realization that they can't buy everything they want.
It's also about making choices, she said, even if they are unpleasant. Since August 2010, the Kucseras have been living in a house owned by Jason's father. They pay the mortgage, taxes and upkeep. They are grateful to have a roof over their heads. Previously they lived with relatives, in hotels and, in the spring of 2008, in tents at the Odetah campground in Bozrah.
"We will do everything in our power to keep a roof over our heads," Kucsera said. "We've got it made compared to what it was like before. I have to remind myself of that every day. So if that means not buying something, then so be it."
She has worked as a receptionist, cashier and waitress, but the hearing loss makes it difficult to understand accents, and even with the implant, she mostly relies on reading lips.
Her husband works on a horse farm in Salem. It's seasonal work but, she noted, it's stable income that they hadn't had in a while. He also plows snow in the winter.
The couple survive on Jason's income, her Social Security disability benefits, for which she qualified in September 2011, $300 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits - formerly known as food stamps - and Women, Infants, and Children food vouchers that she receives for her two youngest children. Kody is allergic to milk and soy and requires a special formula that WIC helps her buy.
Kucsera said the family rarely goes clothes shopping, instead relying on hand-me-downs. Her husband is handy and can fix almost anything, she said, so if he sees a discarded toy or something the family can use, he will pick it up and fix it.
They got cable TV a year ago. Before that, it was just movies on DVDs purchased for $1 at pawn shops. The family stove is broken and, while a replacement is waiting on layaway, they cook family meals in a slow cooker, microwave and toaster oven.
During the winter, they heat the house only at night. If they run out of oil, they use a diesel mixture.
"We manage," Kucsera said. "We always do."
She said school officials know that her children must eat the free breakfasts and lunches provided there since they cannot afford to feed the children at home.
She said the food she gets from the pantry frees up money to buy other types of food. The family can go through a gallon of milk and a carton of eggs a day. They can go through four boxes of macaroni and cheese and three cans of vegetables in one sitting.
"Otherwise, it's robbing Peter to pay Paul," Kucsera said. "We also live off credit cards."
Kucsera said she fills her car with gas and expects it to last for a few weeks, but even that can be challenging, since she has to take her twin daughters to various medical appointments. One twin suffers from seizures and the other lost vision in her right eye, she said.
Fresh fruits and vegetables
It is finally Kucsera's turn to enter The Lord's Pantry. She pushes her stroller while her daughter follows behind. Volunteers offer her fresh onions, lettuce, grapes, peaches, corn, bananas, meat and bread. She says, "Yes, thank you" each time.
"When we go to the store and the choice is between vegetables or buy some meat, I'm going to choose meat because it's more filling," Kucsera said. "It's expensive to buy fresh foods so we mostly rely on canned goods. When my children and I go to the store, they know not to ask for anything that has a two or three in front of the price. We are on a strict budget."
This particular Tuesday is Kucsera's third visit to the food pantry. She learned about it when she went to the Thames Valley Council for Community Action Inc., the region's social service agency that helps low-income individuals in New London apply for heating assistance. There, on a bulletin board, she saw some information about The Lord's Pantry at St. James. TVCCA gave her a voucher that allows her to get food there.
"This was different from other pantries because they gave us fresh fruit and vegetables and loaves of bread," Kucsera said. "When my kids saw what I was able to get, they literally just ate that for like three straight days."
More in need than ever
Jason Martin, social services manager at TVCCA, said the downturn in the economy is bringing in a new population seeking assistance. The United Way food bank distributes more than 2 million pounds of food every year to nearly 100 member feeding sites, including shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries, programs for the elderly, child care centers and community meals sites, all in New London County.
He said pantries in the winter months get busier as people face additional expenses such as heating their homes.
"It used to be that people would go to a food pantry in an emergency, but now they are using it as a subsidy," Martin said.
St. James receives its food for its weekly food distributions from the food bank. Last month, the pantry provided 3,250 meals and served 396 clients.
Kucsera's children, she said, always have smiles on their faces and know not to ask for anything. But being children, sometimes they can't resist. When that happens, they each get $1 so they can buy something at the Dollar Store.
Her eldest, CJ, is the children's guardian, she said, and never asks for anything for himself. He lets them eat first before he serves himself. The unofficial rule in the household is that the children eat first, then the adults.
"My children teach me something every day," Kucsera said. "They are happy and that's all that matters. You know, I'm lucky. There is someone out there that just lost their child."