The people who have been calling the Washington region’s largest food bank this month sound different from before. More timid. More unsure. Less familiar with how the food bank system works.
For many, officials said, asking for help to feed their families may be a new experience.
Since a partial government shutdown began last month, shuttering nine federal departments and multiple agencies, the Capital Area Food Bank’s Hunger Lifeline has received an influx of inquiries from furloughed and unpaid government workers, contractors and others who aren’t sure when they’ll see another paycheck.
The shutdown was into its 19th day Wednesday, making it the second-longest in history. Last week, President Trump said it could persist for “months or even years” if an impasse with congressional Democrats continued.
Nonprofit organizations that help struggling families said leaving 800,000 federal workers and countless contractors without paychecks during January, and possibly into February, coincides with the worst two months for donations. The United Way of the National Capital Area on Wednesday pledged $50,000 of its emergency funds to aid nonprofits “providing vital food, rent and utility assistance” to impacted workers. Pepco — the utility company that provides electricity to the District — has offered a $50,000 match.
But with no end in sight to the federal stalemate, nonprofit leaders worry it might not be enough.
“At this stage, we’re not only saying there’s a lot more meals we’ll need to provide, but also a lot more dollars we’ll need to acquire to attempt to do that,” said Radha Muthiah, chief executive of the Capital Area Food Bank. “What we’re seeing now is an increase — people who are calling in, saying ‘I’ve just been furloughed or I have a friend who has. Where should they go?’ ”
The Capital Area Food Bank, which serves half a million people in the Washington region each year, distributes about 3 million meals in a typical January. This month, the nonprofit group is expecting to see a 10 to 20 percent increase — or a difference of 300,000 to 600,000 meals, which could cost up to $300,000.
Although the organization typically builds its annual budget with a cushion for disasters, Muthiah said, the longer the shutdown lasts, the more dire people’s circumstances probably will become.
The White House announced this week that food stamps for 38 million low-income Americans would be provided through February, but no such guarantee exists for March, should the shutdown continue. In the Washington area, about 334,000 people receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the iteration of food stamps also known as SNAP.
“If they don’t receive those benefits, in our area, we’re talking about an additional 12 million meals to make up for SNAP,” Muthiah said. “That’s $5 million just for that month to secure the food that’s needed to meet those food needs.”
She’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.
About 362,000 federal workers live within the Capital Area Food Bank’s service area, which includes the District and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland, as well as Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties and the city of Alexandria.
“We’re now bracing for individuals who are not a part of this network,” Muthiah said. “We always have a little bit that we budget into our annual plans for extenuating circumstances and emergencies. What’s becoming more clear is we need to think of shutdowns as a larger bucket of possible emergencies.”
The Capital Area Food Bank is one of three nonprofit organizations to receive assistance from the United Way’s Emergency Assistance Fund, which was established during the 2013 government shutdown. The group will also donate funds to Northern Virginia Family Services and Catholic Charities.
Rosie Allen-Herring, president and chief executive of the United Way of the National Capital Area, said nonprofit groups have emphasized to her that the need they’re seeing around the Washington area is outstripping the support they were prepared to provide.
“It’s not just the 800,000 workers we’re hearing about almost daily,” Allen-Herring said. “There’s another rung of smaller, more disadvantaged businesses who contract with the federal government. Those employees aren’t going to be made whole” with potential back pay when the shutdown ends.
Hundreds of individual fundraisers on websites such as GoFundMe have sought to raise money to help families and workers who don’t know when they’ll see another paycheck. Alongside written pleas for help, families have posted photos of their spouses, their children, their homes.
Emily Hildreth, 32, a furloughed federal worker with the Interior Department who lives in the District, began a campaign on Facebook to raise money for various nonprofit groups. The first organization she chose was Feeding America, which provides food to distributors around the country, including the Capital Area Food Bank.
She dubbed her fundraising drive “Reopen America’s Heart (and the government!).” Her suggested donation is a dollar for every day government agencies have been shuttered. Hildreth said she’ll choose a new organization every three days until the shutdown ends.
She started the fundraiser on a whim, she said, after spending days feeling helpless in the face of fruitless debates and a shutdown with no end in sight.
She set a goal of $1,000. In the fundraiser’s first three days, it raised more than $600.
“I guess it’s a way to take some control back, and to feel like maybe I can give people a way to vent their frustrations in all this in a way that’s creating something positive,” Hildreth said. “Shutdowns are very discouraging.”
Some private businesses in the District have offered free meals to furloughed federal workers. On Tuesday, Washington Gas announced it would offer flexible payment plans for families affected by the shutdown.
Montgomery County Council member Evan Glass (D-At Large) on Wednesday asked county agencies and nonprofit organizations to “make their services available for federal employees and contractors,” and for businesses to “allow for creative and flexible payment options.”
Several members of Congress have pledged to donate their salaries to charity during the shutdown.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is donating to Homes For The Brave, a nonprofit group that provides housing for homeless veterans. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said she would donate her salary to Hawaii’s food banks. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) will donate to the North Dakota National Guard Foundation. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) promised her salary to HIAS, a global Jewish nonprofit organization that provides relief to refugees.
More than 30 members of Congress have asked that their pay be withheld during the shutdown in solidarity with federal workers. Some, including Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Rep. Bradley Schneider (D-Ill.), have directed the government to send their paycheck back to the U.S. Treasury until funding is restored.
For furloughed workers such as Hildreth, those actions are nice to see but fall short of what she and her colleagues really want: to get back to work.
“I appreciate the gesture, and I don’t want to discount whatever help they’re providing, but I think donations really address a piece of what we’re dealing with. The problem is so much bigger,” she said. “The main job of Congress right now should be to try to figure this out.”
Robert McCartney contributed to this report.