Sulma’s 1-year-old daughter plays and coos on her lap as she watches her 5-year-old son Jefferson play with his two cousins in their apartment in San Mateo. Every week, Sulma watches her young kids during the day while her niece watches them at night. Sulma works as an office custodian in the evenings, and her partner Elmer works two full-time jobs. They each get about 5.5 hours of sleep a night.

Sulma’s night shift cleaning offices in San Carlos is the only job she’s had since coming to the United States nine years ago from El Salvador. When shelter-in-place orders were announced in March 2020, the offices where Sulma worked closed, and she quickly needed to find a way to pay her mounting bills. Sulma eventually took out two loans to cover essential expenses and sought out food assistance from Second Harvest of Silicon Valley for the first time.

After multiple stops and starts at her job due to coronavirus restrictions, Sulma was struggling to make ends meet. Then, at eight months pregnant, she caught COVID-19.

The free grocery distribution at Menlo Park Senior Center became a lifeline for Sulma and her family. Not only did she start receiving enough nutritious groceries for her household, but she also received free diapers, which Sulma says saved her about $100 a month after her daughter was born in September 2020.

“I have one hour of break time at my job and it’s eight minutes from home, so I can come home to breastfeed.”

Last year for me has been a terrible, terrible year. I stayed at the hospital for about a week (when I caught COVID). Thank God, the father of my children didn’t catch it and was able to keep working.

Sulma says it’s easier to work nights so she can be with her children Giselle (left) and Jefferson (right) during the day.
Sulma says it’s easier to work nights so she can be with her children Giselle (left) and Jefferson (right) during the day.

Sulma says it’s easier to work nights so she can be with her children Giselle (left) and Jefferson (right) during the day.

With the food she gets from Second Harvest she can cook herself soup to keep hydrated while she is breastfeeding. Sulma also enjoys the fruits, vegetables and eggs from the boxes she receives, and she regularly prepares healthier vegetable pupusas for her son in the morning because he loves them.

On Wednesdays and Sundays their family rests. Elmer has those days off from work and that’s when they can finally eat meals together. They will regularly take walks to the playground to help Jefferson get all his energy out; he also loves swimming with his papá at their local pool.

When we congratulated Sulma on how she is raising her kids, she replied: “I have to make an effort because it’s not their fault that I have to work so much.”

Despite Sulma and Elmer’s busy days, it is the sacrifice they must make to survive in a city that they love. Sulma concludes that getting groceries from Second Harvest allows them to use what little money they make to pay off their loans or to save.

“[Getting free groceries] is a huge burden off of my shoulders.”

The money Sulma and her partner save by getting free groceries from Second Harvest goes to paying off the debt they accrued during the pandemic