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Caught up in shutdown, New Orleans-area federal workers turn to food banks, pop-up pantries

Most weeks, 350 to 375 families will pass through the Northshore Food Bank in downtown Covington, where they receive boxes of food and “lagniappe” such as fresh fruit when it’s available.

Since the food bank put a note on its Facebook page that it could help families suddenly struggling without a paycheck due to the federal government shutdown, the numbers have start to creep upward. At last count, 14 such families have taken the agency up on its offer.

It’s a manageable uptick so far, but Food Bank CEO Terri Turner-Marse fears what may come: Those numbers could grow much larger if the shutdown drags on longer.

“We can handle it at this point,” Turner-Marse said. “But the longer this goes on …”

Some 800,000 federal employees are either furloughed or still on the job but working without pay as the partial shutdown of the government entered its 33rd day Wednesday (Jan. 23). Many federal employees are bracing for a second missed paycheck this Friday.

Across metro New Orleans and the U.S., food pantries have reported more federal employees waiting in line for groceries to help tide them over. The established food centers have been joined by smaller pop-up sites run by churches and civic groups. In Belle Chasse and Slidell, for instance, the spouses of people serving in the Coast Guard have set up food distribution locations to help the families of federal employees.

A representative of Second Harvest, which provides food in 23 parishes across south Louisiana, said Wednesday that the food banks it supplies have seen a significant increase in families needing assistance. (Click here for information on Second Harvest’s assistance for federal workers.)

“It’s been across the board,” spokesman Jay Vise said.

In a news release, Second Harvest said that because the state of Louisiana issued Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for February early to help eligible families cope with the shutdown, it could worsen things next month.

The Associated Press reported that U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asked states to issue February SNAP benefits no later than Jan. 20.

“Louisiana residents receiving SNAP will spend these limited February dollars much earlier than normal,” Melanie McGuire, Second Harvest chief impact officer, said. “This means many families will run low on food much earlier than normal.”

The impact on food banks will be twofold, according to Second Harvest.

“This is a really unprecedented situation we’re facing,” Second Harvest President and CEO Natalie Jayroe added. “The lost wages by so many federal employees combined with the impact upon low-income residents will put our ability to serve those in need to a serious test.”

In Belle Chasse, spouses of people serving in the U.S. Coast Guard opened a food pantry in a church near the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base.

Kathi Callahan of Gretna said First Baptist Church, at 8828 Belle Chasse Highway, offered space. Wednesday marked the fifth day the pantry was open and Callahan said more than 150 families had been helped.

“A lot of Coast Guard people, especially our young enlisted, they don’t make a lot of money,” said Callahan, whose husband is retired from the Coast Guard. “So going without a paycheck is really hard for them.”

The pantry, which will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Friday next week, is available to any federal workers, not just Coast Guard, going without pay because of the shutdown.

“Whatever we have, we give,” Callahan said, adding that donations are welcome.

In Slidell, a distribution site was open from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday at 370 Gateway Drive, Suite A, at an Allstate Insurance location. Leila Perez and Crystal Meadowcroft, who both have spouses working without pay in the Coast Guard, spent much of the day preparing for the distribution.

Meadowcroft, who sells insurance, said her employer had provided the space for Wednesday. Perez said they’ll distribute food from noon until 4 p.m. Monday and Tuesday at Northshore Church, 310 Kensington Blvd.

Like the pop-up in Belle Chasse, Meadowcroft and Perez said the site is open to all affected federal employees.

“They’re struggling,’’ Perez, a real estate agent, said of some of the Coast Guard families she knows. “They don’t want to say it, but they are.’’

Meadowcroft said she and her husband had a “little cushion" so they’re OK for now. “But not everybody has that," she said.

Turner-Marse from the Northshore Food Bank, which serves St. Tammany and Washington parishes, said furloughed an unpaid federal workers they must present their employee IDs to be put on a schedule to receive food.

Some federal workers, especially those in the military, are reluctant to seek help, she said. About half of the families of seeking assistance are from the U.S. Coast Guard, she added.

“People are people. They like to take care of themselves. They won’t come to us until they really need help,’’ Turner-Marse said. “It can be very humbling.”

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