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Food Banks Helping Shutdown Federal Workers

Mary Rose Madden
Federal workers line up for help at a maryland Food Bank distribution pantry

Credit Mary Rose Madden
A Maryland Food Bank worker helps distribute food at a Pantry on the Go.

As the partial federal government shutdown grinds into its second month, food banks have been cropping up to help federal workers—and contractors--who just missed their second paycheck.

The Maryland Food Bank, for example, has been setting up “Pantries on the Go” throughout the region to help, like the one this week in a parking lot just off Interstate 95 in Arbutus. There, workers set up tables covered with cans of soup, baskets of produce, and boxes of granola bars.

Some of the people filling bags had been here before. And others, like Nereida Ramos of Owings Mills, say this is their first time. Ramos, an investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has worked for the federal government for 21 years. And after missing two paychecks because of the shutdown, she says she’s “running on fumes.”

“I decided to go out and replenish what I don’t have at home anymore.”

She says she’s heard criticism from unsympathetic private sector workers who wonder what the big deal is, that federal employees will get back pay when the shutdown ends, which means this is a paid vacation. And she has a few words for them.

“I know we’re gonna get it later,” she says. “But later, when? A few months? A year? I need food now.”

And as far as a vacation goes, she says, a vacation “is when you have the money to do things when you’re off work, but we don’t have that luxury.  We have to save and hold on to every penny.”

Ramos was at the pantry with her daughter, who just got a federal job and her own apartment. Ramos says trying to help her daughter and keep her own head above water at the same time is infuriating.

“This is not a board game. We’re not pawns,” she fumed. “You can’t shut the government down because you’re not getting your way. It should be illegal. It’s not fair to us and to everyone who needs us.”

Congressman John Sarbanes, whose district meanders across parts of Howard, Montgomery, Anne Arundel, and Baltimore counties, showed up at this distribution center.

The shutdown he said, “puts a terrible burden on the federal employees and I’m here to understand that burden.”

But despite that burden, he says he and his fellow Democrats are standing their ground in refusing to appropriate money for a border wall because “if we give in to the president – he’ll do it again” on other issues.

He says the Democrats have countered President Trump’s proposal for a border wall with what he calls a “strong proposal for improving and strengthening border security” that includes enhanced surveillance, radar, sensors and beefing up border patrols.

“If you’re really worried about contraband – you boost infrastructure and resources at border crossings,” Sarbanes argued. “The obsession the president has with the wall is pulling resources away from those things that would help protect the border. It doesn’t make any sense."

Sarbanes says he wants a “comprehensive approach” to immigration reform.

“How do we have a humane and effective policy for families that are seeking asylum, what is the visa process,” he asks. “How do we keep families together?  We can link that with border security.  But we can’t do that while employees are being held hostage – that’s not fair.”

As he spoke, the line behind him grew longer.

Meg Kimmel, a Maryland Food Bank vice president, says they will continue to hold the food distribution events “as long as the shutdown lasts.”

Their problem, however, comes down to money.

“This comes on the heels of a very low performing December for the non-profits,” she said. “Between the tax reform and what’s going on in Washington, and the stock market, non-profits across the board had very weak Decembers. So our fund-raising is down.”

Still, the organization has scheduled two more Pantry on the Go events from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at Giant Food stores at 7940 Crain Highway in Glen Burnie and 9200 Baltimore National Pike in Ellicott City. They‘ll distribute produce and staples on a first-come, first-served basis to people with valid federal employee or federal contractor IDs.

For more information, go to @MDFoodBank on social media channels or online at www.mdfoodbank.org.

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