Food banks stand ready. But shutdown threatens first line of defense against hunger.

Federal employees, including Darcie Oubezza, left, and Mary O’Rourke, protested the partial government shutdown Wednesday outside Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Lexington office.
Federal employees, including Darcie Oubezza, left, and Mary O’Rourke, protested the partial government shutdown Wednesday outside Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Lexington office. cbertram@herald-leader.com
Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, surely it is safe to assume that you aren’t blaming the 800,000 federal employees or their families for the dire financial situation many find themselves in thanks to the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history.

There has been widespread media coverage of federal employees and contractors who are unable to pay bills, visit the doctor or put food on the tables because they haven’t received a paycheck since December. The stress these individuals and their families are under is staggering.

Food banks and food pantries are here to help, including our member Lexington-based God’s Pantry Food Bank. They are opening their doors to help furloughed federal workers and others impacted by the shutdown who need assistance.

In addition to providing emergency food distributions, many are also helping federal workers and contractors apply for federal programs they may qualify for, like SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), WIC and school meals.

Unfortunately federal nutrition programs are themselves at risk because of the shutdown. For example, SNAP benefits for February were issued earlier this month; no additional SNAP benefits will be issued in February. That means recipients may need to stretch food resources for as long as 40 days or more, if the shutdown continues into March. Funding for March SNAP benefits remains uncertain.

To be clear, SNAP is the first line of defense against hunger in America. For every meal provided by a Feeding America food bank, SNAP provides 12. The charitable sector cannot meet the increased need for food assistance caused by any reduction or delay in SNAP benefits.

The truth is, many of us are just a car accident or hospital stay away from the financial hardship currently facing federal employees and contractors. Most Americans don’t have enough money saved to cover even one missed paycheck.

Nearly 80 percent of American workers say they’re living paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet, according to a 2017 report. That includes nearly 1 in 10 workers earning $100,000 or more. Women are particularly vulnerable: 81 percent of them report living paycheck to paycheck, compared with 75 percent of men.

That’s why the face of hunger may surprise you. Visit a food pantry in Kentucky on any given day and you are likely to see a single mother, wearing the uniform of her employer, whose hours were unexpectedly reduced for the pay period. Or you’ll see a senior citizen who put in decades of hard work only to find himself in his “golden years” with more bills to pay than retirement savings.

We believe such people deserve empathy and support, too. And if you ever find yourself — for whatever reason — in need of help putting food on the table, we are working hard to be sure that your local food bank will be there for you, as well.

Tamara Sandberg is executive director of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks, the state’s largest charitable response to hunger. Last year, its seven regional Feeding America food bank members distributed 64 million meals in partnership with more than 800 charitable feeding agencies such as pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters.