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Food banks fill in for paychecks as government shutdown drags on | TribLIVE.com
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Food banks fill in for paychecks as government shutdown drags on

The Washington Post
| Saturday, January 19, 2019 3:21 p.m
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Thirty people lined up in the parking lot of a Giant grocery store in Alexandria, Virginia, before the food bank for federal workers opened at 9 a.m. Some waited more than an hour. More than a tenth of the food was gone in the first five minutes.

“Hi there. Potatoes, carrots and onions,” a volunteer for the Capital Area Food Bank repeated as she handed out bags of produce to federal employees.

As the longest government shutdown in U.S. history enters its second month, many of the roughly 800,000 workers affected nationwide are scrambling to make ends meets as they brace for a second missed paycheck. Some find themselves turning to charity for the first time.

Across the Washington region, hundreds turned to Capital Area Food Bank pop-up markets Saturday morning for canned goods and fresh vegetables.

“For many, many years, I sent in donations to the Capital Area Food Bank,” one older woman told a volunteer as she picked up food. “This is the first time I’ve had to ask for help.”

Many were similarly in disbelief that they needed help to put food on the plate despite having good jobs.

“You are talking to two senior management employees here,” said Kim Harmon, a Commerce Department employee who came with her husband, Kevin James, who works for the National Park Service. “This is pretty humiliating.”

The couple, who have worked for the federal government for nearly 30 years and have been recalled to work without pay, said the timing of the shutdown was especially bad, coming after the holidays, with many already having drawn down their savings for gifts and charitable donations.

“It’s the first pay period after Christmas,” said Kim Harmon, 47. “How do they put an undue hardship after the holidays? How are you going to give us Christmas Eve off, but not our first full paycheck for paying our mortgage and everything else?”

The Capital Area Food Bank – a longtime organization serving the Washington region’s needy – has set up pop-up markets for federal workers in light of the shutdown. The initial demand was overwhelming.

“Last week we prepared for 250 people at each site, and we were just deluged. Food ran out in the first hour,” said Radha Muthiah, executive director of the Capital Area Food Bank. “It’s still an experiment because we don’t typically do these pop ups.”

On Saturday, her organization gave food to 1,140 federal workers across eight sites and none of the sites ran out of food, falling well short of their overall capacity. Officials believe workers are utilizing other nonprofit groups and charities who are also donating food.

But Muthiah said the food bank will face challenges keeping up if the shutdown continues through mid-February because more federal workers will run through their savings and SNAP recipients will start running out of their federal benefits to buy food.

The shutdown is a result of a stalemate between Congress and President Donald Trump, who is insisting that the federal spending plan include billions for a wall on the southern border, which is opposed by Democrats who control the House.

The president is expected to announce a new offer to Democrats during a Saturday afternoon address from the White House, which several food bank visitors said they were anxiously awaiting in hopes for a path out of the shutdown.

Bennita Dillard-Brown, a 55-year-old Jutice Department employee, said she was hopeful for an end to the shutdown but is resigned to them being an unfortunate downside to working for the federal government.

“In September, I started putting money away because that’s when you first start hearing about the budget and the possibility of a shutdown,” said Dillard-Brown, who planned to share food from the food bank with her co-workers. “It’s a little sad, but I’ve been through shutdowns. But it never came to this before.”

Mike Hoover, a Treasury Department employee, came to the food bank as a volunteer to help package produce and distribute food. He said he and his wife, who also works for the federal government, haven’t yet struggled financially, but he understands that many others are in a precarious position.

“I remember how it was when I was first starting out, working paycheck to paycheck and getting your checking amount down to $4 and wondering if you’ll make it,” said Hoover, a federal worker since 1990.

Some workers said they were torn about seeking charity.

“I was thinking about the people with kids, and the older workers. I wanted to let people in a worse situation go first. Now I’m like. ‘I’m one of those,’” said Sigrid Lane, a paralegal with the Justice Department who has applied for unemployment benefits. “My checking account is at zero. Without food, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

Lane has worked for the federal government for a decade, drawn to the promise of steady work. But the havoc of shutdowns and the downtime of furlough has prompted her to start applying for other jobs.

“At the time it was the stability, the benefits and the retirement, but now you can work in private industry anywhere and get the same benefits,” said Lane, 51.

As one man left with his arms filled with food, volunteer Tony Harris waved goodbye.

“Hopefully we won’t see you again,” Harris chuckled.

“Hopefully not,” the federal worker said with a grin.

“But we’re here,” Harris said. “If you still need it.”

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