"Things can be snatched from you in the blink of an eye," Tasha Abrams, who turned to Out of the Garden Project for help, tells PEOPLE for World Hunger Day
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tasha abrams
Tasha Abrams
| Credit: Courtesy Don Milhoolin

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Tasha Abrams was supporting herself and her three children with her job as a recovery court coordinator, her past struggles of brief homelessness as a teen with a newborn a distant memory.

But in the past few months, she has been reminded of a hard lesson she learned years ago: "Things can be snatched from you in the blink of an eye," Abrams, 33, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, which features stories to share the importance of World Hunger Day.

Growing up in New York, Abrams was kicked out of her house at 18 when she became pregnant with her oldest son.

"I didn't know what to do because I didn't grow up in a struggle," she says. "I didn't know anything about a homeless shelter."

Following a brief time of sleeping on a bench in New York City, she ended up in a shelter, then found jobs and an apartment. She also managed to earn her undergraduate degree.

"I just made things work," she says. 

In 2017 Abrams moved to Greensboro, North Carolina and had two more sons, now 1 and 3. But as a single mom, her court salary barely covered her expenses, and her oldest son, now 15, qualified for free school lunches. Still, they were making it — until the COVID pandemic struck last year. 

For more on hunger in America, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

With schools shut down and the loss of those meals, she turned to the Out of the Garden Project for much-needed free produce and healthy foods.

"It's hard for me to accept help," she says. "It's hard for me to ask for help." 

By September she received a raise and didn't need the aid anymore — until this past March, when everything changed once again when the social isolation of the pandemic took a toll on her oldest son.

He suffered a mental health crisis that put him in the hospital, and Abrams faced a choice both difficult and obvious: "My son needed me, and I needed to be home with him."

She asked her employer for flexibility, but instead they let her go.

"It was awful," she says. "I've never been fired in my life."

Suddenly "it was survival mode. Not being able to get the basics you need was hard. There were times when my kids were eating pasta and butter because that's all we had."

With unemployment benefits not yet arriving and no income, she took Door Dash work to help cover car insurance, rent and the electric bill, but to feed her family she again turned to Out of the Garden.

"At first it felt terrible," says Abrams, who is also working on a master's degree in education. "A year ago I was successful, and now I could be in line and see someone who used to be a client. It's humbling going through this."

But last week, Abrams' life made a turn for the better. When Don Milholin, president of Out of the Garden, learned of Tasha's story and met her, he was so impressed that he offered her a part-time job. She accepted and started Monday.

"It's decent work, they are all so nice," she says, "and it really helps to have something to look forward to." 

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COVID and Hunger: How to Help

Friday marks World Hunger Day, an opportunity to learn more about the hunger crisis and help those in need. Food insecurity reached a 20-year low in America in 2019 — but then COVID hit, and the number of people facing hunger rose to more than 42 million, including 13 million children.

Food banks nationwide saw a 55 percent increase in demand, says Casey Marsh of Feeding America, the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization, which runs a network of food banks and partners with food pantries that distribute donations from individuals, as well as food from stores or restaurants that might otherwise go to waste. An extraordinary 40 percent of those seeking their assistance from March and June of 2020 had never needed to use a food bank before.

"Many Americans are one emergency, one job loss, one medical crisis away from food insecurity," Marsh says. "COVID-19 was the perfect storm."

For information on how you can donate or volunteer, go to feedingamerica.org.

— With reporting by MADISON ROBERTS