Don’t Look Away Yet: What the Government Shutdown Reveals About Hunger in America.

By Andrew Fisher & Alison M. Cohen

While Congress and the President came to an agreement to keep the government open, many federal employees and contractors are digging out from a mountain of bills left from the first 35-day furlough.

The partial federal government shutdown last month led to an outpouring of emotion from politicians for federal employees facing hunger. The Hill reported Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) saying it was “heart-wrenching” to meet with federal workers who had to rely on food banks because they weren’t receiving a paycheck.

We couldn’t agree more. It is heart wrenching to see federal employees in need of charity to feed their families. Yet, we wonder why witnessing 46 million Americans regularly relying on food banks does not have the same effect? Perhaps this newfound attention to food charity can highlight the economic fragility of America’s working and middle class. In our public servants’ painful, public struggle to access food, can we also see the 12% of Americanswho live with more permanent food insecurity year after year?

Less than a month after pay was withheld,800,000 furloughed federal workers and a million or more contract workers not entitled to back pay – janitors, security guards, daycare workers, food service employers– were adversely impacted needing to make impossible choices between rent, healthcare, food and transportation. Add to that the reports from food banks across the country of a 20% to 50% increase in requests for food assistance, and we begin to get a clear picture of the precarity of our government’s social safety net and of a low-wage economy where a crisis is just a missed paycheck or two away.

Consider the situation of Shatimah Brathwaite, a TSA employee at LaGuardia Airport, who reported for duty despite not having received a paycheck in weeks. “We have to put our pride aside and stand in lines for groceries from food pantries, apply for government assistance, ask for help from friends and family. It’s a lot. Our friends and family can only do so much before they’re stretched too thin. We’re becoming a burden to others. What happens if any one of us becomes ill and our insurance premiums aren’t being paid? Unfortunately, many of my coworkers as well as myself live paycheck to paycheck. For a lot of us there is no room in our budgets to save significant amounts of money for rainy days such as these… Everyone is exhausting whatever small savings they may have had. We’re facing evictions, and repossessions.”

Until this shutdown, Congress- and the media- looked past the 46 million people forced to rely on food charity to feed their families. The single mom earning $11 per hour to work at Walmart, without full time hours nor a regular schedule. The fast food worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25, still prevalent in 21 states. The Los Angeles, New York or Chicago residents paying 60% or 70% of their wages in rent just to keep a roof over their heads. The waitress still making $2.13 per hour, who often takes home a negative paycheck from being taxed on her tips. The immigrant farmworkers picking veggies and fruit in California whose wages are stolen by unscrupulous labor contractors. The 36% of college students who can’t afford groceries or stable housing. Our senior citizens who represent more than half of the recurrent clients at food banks and food pantries around the country.

These folks are the collateral damage of an economic system that exploits their labor, while Congress and the President have failed to give America’s working class a raise in a decade, nor increase their SNAP benefits to a more realistic level than the current $1.45 per meal.

As a result, these individuals and their children have become reliant on a network of 60,000 charitable food outlets distributing $5 billion worth of food every year. This explosion of charity is a testament to community goodwill and volunteerism, but it’s also a symbol of the abdication of the government’s responsibility to ensure the right to food for its citizenry.

Rather than the federal government outsourcing its response to hunger to charities, we would like to see policy changes that make the need for food banks obsolete: increased SNAP allocations, a $15 minimum wage, more affordable housing and childcare, universal healthcare, stronger labor laws, and healthier school meals. The current federal shutdown may be behind us, but the heart-wrenching scenes of federal workers standing in line for food are not as they must now dig themselves out of the economic crisis they were thrown into. Let’s not allow these images to fade; instead let’s stay reminded that economic precarity is the norm for a majority of working Americans – and it doesn’t have to be.

_This article originally appeared in the New Food Economy._

Andrew Fisher co-founded and led the Community Food Security Coalition for 17 years, which played a pivotal role in building the food movement. He currently teaches, writes, and consults on food system issues from Portland, Oregon.Visit his websiteand order his latest book, BIG FOOD.


Alison Cohen is the senior director of programs at WhyHunger, providing support to grassroots organizations in the U.S. and social movements globally that are working toward addressing the root causes of hunger and the deep inequities of poverty at the intersection of agriculture and food systems, racism, health and climate change. She has worked with grassroots-led organizations in rural and urban farming communities for 25 years.


Alison M. Cohen


Andrew Fisher


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