Across the United States, food banks are feeling the sting from the ongoing government shutdown. Now in its fifth week, the longest government shutdown in history may soon have a significant impact on how food banks, as well as the charities and food pantries they serve, can get food to families in need. This includes thousands of furloughed federal workers who are still working with no paycheck in sight—according to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office, an estimated 18,000 furloughed workers reside in New York City alone.
Margarette Purvis, the President of the Food Bank of New York City, tells Gothamist that they’ve seen a swell of anxiety coming from furloughed New Yorkers, many of whom are navigating resources such as food pantries and SNAP benefits (food stamps) for the first time. “We are concerned about the overall supply for soup kitchens and food pantries because, listen, we are helpers by nature and by industry," Purvis said. There is also concern about potential delivery delays.
Representatives of the Food Bank of New York City have said they have been seeing delays in grocery deliveries because of the shutdown. Melanie Pang, a Government Relations Officer at the Houston Food Bank, as well as Paul Ash, the Executive Director of the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, both say that food banks could face delivery delays as the government shutdown extends indefinitely.
Additionally, Pang says Houston’s food bank, the largest in the U.S., has seen an increase in demand at its on-site pantry, where people can make appointments to eat (typically, food banks distribute to food pantries and other charities, and don't serve individually). She says that federal agencies have also contacted them and requested distribution trucks, so that their furloughed workers are taken care of.
All three food banks are especially concerned about the uncertainty of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits as the shutdown extends into uncertain territory. Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture bumped February’s SNAP benefits two weeks early. But if the shutdown continues into the coming weeks, it’s unclear how adjustments like this will play out for future benefits. “[SNAP is] not intended to be the sole source of food for a household, and so often it is,” Pang says. “So these little disruptions are actually creating a ripple effect across the entire budget of a family.”
“We’re facing probably one of the worst Februarys that we’ve ever seen, simply because people are not getting those food stamps,” Purvis says. “This is not a wait and see moment. This is a jump in as soon as you can moment.”
In the coming weeks, the Food Bank of New York City will be hosting mobile food pantry pop-ups at as-yet-announced “iconic” locations across the five boroughs, where furloughed government workers can receive fresh produce and goods, as well as information about SNAP benefits, local pantries, and other resources.
On Tuesday, the Barclays Center hosted the first of these pop-ups. Federal workers lined up next to long, orange tables, where Food Bank staffers distributed food products such as canned goods, fruit, and milk, as well as feminine products and diapers—the latter two being particularly appreciated due to how expensive these products already are. "We've seen dads in line because they have teenage daughters," Purvis added. "One woman broke down in tears when she saw what was in the bag."
Lorainne Williams, a federal worker for the IRS, left with a bag of vegetables, fruit, and milk. She's missed two paychecks thus far, and will likely miss a third. "I'm okay for now, because the rent was paid for January," Williams said. "The cable bill was paid for January, the phone bill was paid for January. But, I don't know what's going to happen come next month."
Additional reporting by Ben Brandstein