This story has been updated.
They are the workers whose jobs serve the people of the United States. But as the partial government shutdown enters its second month, with no apparent end in sight, thousands of government employees now are relying on the people of the United States to help them feed their own families. It’s like one giant government bread line — except for government workers.
The outpouring of support has been widespread and creative, high-profile and grass-roots. For every relief kitchen opened by José Andrés and his nonprofit World Central Kitchen — the celebrity chef and humanitarian recently said more kitchens are coming after the first one debuted last week in Washington — there are countless small markets and programs.
Restaurants and chefs, of course, have been giving away free or discounted food, including a cruise line in Florida that has opened a pair of boats to federal workers so they can dig into a free lunch buffet. But now farmers markets, food banks and other organizations are finding ways to help workers who haven’t received a paycheck since December.
A farmers market in Greensboro, N.C., is matching every dollar that a federal contractor or furloughed employee spends, up to $50, essentially extending supplemental food stamp benefits to government workers. A relief agency in Philadelphia is, for the first time in its history, enacting a disaster plan to help feed federal employees. The Capital Area Food Bank, which usually helps low-income residents in the Washington area, has expanded its assistance to include “pop-up markets” at Giant Food stores to pass out free groceries to furloughed feds. Even a nonprofit health-care system in southern New Jersey has started an emergency food drive.
The website My FED Benefits has created an interactive assistance map to help workers in every state find programs to support them through the shutdown.
On Jan. 13, a few Washingtonians teamed up to launch one of the more creative relief efforts: PayItFurloughed.com is a site that allows anyone to buy furloughed employees a beer at one of three District breweries. It was developed by Mess Hall food incubator founder Al Goldberg, food writer Nevin Martell, web and app developer 3Advance, and publicist Erick Sanchez. To date, more than 3,850 beers have been donated from people far and wide, including those living in Australia, Singapore, the Netherlands and elsewhere, Martell said. Just as important, more than 1,550 of those quaffs have already been enjoyed.
PayItFurloughed is designed not only to express compassion to hard-pressed federal employees but also to help small craft breweries, which can’t bottle or can new beers because the government doesn’t have the resources to approve labels, Martell said. The D.C. breweries currently involved with PayItFurloughed are 3 Stars, DC Brau and Atlas Brew Works.
“Buying someone a beer is such an American thing to do,” Martell said. ” ‘You’re having a bad day? Let me buy you a beer.’ ”
Martell said that he and Goldberg — who invested a total of $1,000 in the project — are looking to expand PayItFurloughed to other cities and regions, probably starting with the suburbs around Washington, where other small breweries could participate. Purchased beers will remain available for a week after federal employees receive their first back paycheck, Martell said.
If any remain after that, Martell added, the beers will be put “on virtual ice until, unfortunately, we go through this all over again.”
And speaking of expansion, Andrés released a video over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend to say that World Central Kitchen will be expanding the #ChefsforFeds relief program that launched last week at ThinkFoodGroup’s test lab at 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Late on Tuesday, Andrés offered a few more details on Twitter. The expansion, he said, would include more than 30 eateries in 12 states, plus the District and Puerto Rico. The expansion will help World Central Kitchen exceed the 6,000 to 8,000 federal workers that the nonprofit and its partners have been feeding each day in Washington.
Nate Mook, executive director of World Central Kitchen, said Wednesday that the nonprofit has already activated food trucks and restaurants in several areas, including Little Rock, Ark.; Cincinnati; Puerto Rico; and Los Angeles. What’s more, he said, some celebrity chefs and restaurateurs have signed up for duty in their respective towns. They include Rick Bayless and Stephanie Izard in Chicago; Spike Mendelsohn in Washington; Ming Tsai in Boston; and Andrew Zimmern in the Minneapolis area.
“A lot of folks have been reaching out and saying, ‘How can we support? What can we do? We’re seeing what you guys are doing and we’re inspired.'” Mook said during a phone interview with The Washington Post. World Central Kitchen, Mook added, is trying to take a strategic approach to opening kitchens, mobilizing them in cities with a large concentration of furloughed workers.
In the meantime, Mook said World Central Kitchen, its partners and volunteers have prepared and served thousands of hot meals a day from a tiny lab kitchen in the District. The menu changes daily but typically includes a sandwich (such as a Philly cheesesteak with grilled onions and peppers), a bowl (such as a sesame rice bowl with edamame, carrots and broccoli) and a hot soup (such as butternut squash puree). The line of federal workers seeking sustenance often snakes down Pennsylvania Avenue and up Seventh Street NW, Mook said. Furloughed employees are seeking not only food but also basic goods — diapers, pet food, groceries — at a resource center that World Central Kitchen has set up in the former 701 restaurant, which recently closed.
“These are breadlines in Washington, D.C., in our nation’s capital in 2019,” said Mook. “It’s kind of surreal to see all these folks standing out in the cold to get a hot plate of food.”
The round-the-clock efforts of nonprofits, chefs and volunteers stand in stark contrast to a government still apparently helpless to end the shutdown. In his weekend video, Andrés, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee, wrapped his address by trolling the president.
“This is our action to make sure nobody will be hungry, President Trump,” Andrés said. “What are you doing about it?”
Worth noting: Martell, of PayItFurloughed, said two people from Mexico have donated to the cause. Mexicans may not fund the border wall that has been the flash point behind the longest government shutdown in history. But they’re willing to buy a few beers for the government workers who have been impacted by this skirmish over a wall.