Thirty people lined up in the parking lot of a Giant grocery store in Northern 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 at the store in Fairfax County’s Alexandria area.
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 meet as they brace for a second missed paycheck. Some find themselves turning to charity for the first time.
Across the Washington region, hundreds visited 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 table despite having good jobs.
Bennita Dillard-Brown, 55, a Justice Department employee, said she was hopeful for an end to the shutdown.
“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 supplies from the food bank with co-workers. “It’s a little sad, but I’ve been through shutdowns. But it never came to this before.”
The Capital Area Food Bank — an organization that has long served the Washington region’s needy — has set up pop-up markets for federal workers hit by 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, president and chief executive 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 no site ran out of food, falling well short of the pop-up sites’ overall capacity.
Officials think workers are drawing on other nonprofit groups and charities that are also donating food.
But Muthiah said the food bank will be challenged to keep up if the shutdown continues through mid-February: More federal workers will run through their savings, and regular beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also will start running out of their federal benefits to buy food.
The shutdown is a result of a stalemate between House Democrats and President Trump, who is insisting that the federal spending plan include $5.7 billion toward a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. The proposal is opposed by Democrats, who control the House.
The president on Saturday afternoon proposed, in exchange for wall funding, to end the shutdown and extend protection for some undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as children.
Hours earlier, several food bank visitors had said they were anxiously awaiting Trump’s speech in hopes of a path out of the shutdown.
“You are talking to two senior management employees here,” said one Commerce Department worker who was at the pop-up food bank with her husband, 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 and with many government workers already having drawn down their savings for gifts and charitable donations at the end of the year.
Mike Hoover, a Treasury Department employee, was at the food bank as a volunteer to help package produce and distribute supplies.
Hoover said he and his wife, who also works for the federal government, have not yet felt a financial pinch, 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 conflicted about seeking charitable assistance.
“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, having been 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 said, chuckling.
“Hopefully not,” the federal worker said with a grin.
“But we’re here,” Harris said. “If you still need it.”