Furloughed federal workers and those working without paychecks because of the U.S. government shutdown got some help feeding their families Wednesday as Foodbank of Santa Barbara County distributed food to them at three locations.
Federal employees and members of their immediate families converged on the food bank warehouse on West Foster Road in Santa Maria between 1 and 2:30 p.m. to pick up food supplies, and another distribution is planned during the same hours Friday.
Employees affected by the government shutdown also picked up food at the First United Methodist Church in Lompoc and the food bank warehouse in Santa Barbara.
“It’s going to get us through the tight spots,” said Fara Haas, whose husband, Matthew, is a Federal Bureau of Prisons employee who hasn’t been paid for three weeks.
The couple have two children.
“We’re just taking a day at a time,” Haas said as food bank volunteers loaded a bag of fresh vegetables and fruits, a bag of dry staples and a frozen turkey into her SUV.
Food bank worker Lisa Poladian said the produce bag contained items like peppers, apples, green bananas and bagged salad, while the other bag contained items like crackers, rice, beans, pasta, sauce and other canned goods — “things they can make a meal with.”
Those who didn’t want a turkey received two bags of fresh produce and two bags of staples.
The food had been bagged and boxed in advance by food bank volunteers, who were also on hand to help load it into the vehicles of federal workers and family members who arrived in a slow but steady stream.
Joanne Jones was picking up food for her daughter, who has a child, and her son-in-law, who both work in the prison system, one as a pharmacy technician, the other as an electrician.
Because of the hours they work, they couldn’t make it to the food distribution. Both are working without pay.
“They have to work — it’s mandatory,” Jones said. “We’re helping our daughter out with things like meals and gas.
“This is awesome, this is great,” she added as four bags and two turkeys were loaded into her SUV. “We can do a turkey dinner.”
At least a quarter of the federal government shut down in December after Congress failed to pass an appropriations bill because President Trump is demanding that it include $5 billion to build a wall along the Mexican border, which is supported by the Republican-controlled Senate.
But the Democrat-controlled House refuses to allocate funding for the wall, so some federal employees were furloughed and others have been working without pay.
Paul Wilkins, director of operations at food bank’s Santa Maria location, said the organization began hearing that many people in the community were being impacted by the government shutdown but they weren’t sure who they were or how to reach them.
“These are not our usual customers,” Wilkins said. “We thought in that vacuum, they might be aware of the services we offer. We decided the power we have, to make that (available) to the community, to take the first step.”
Wilkins said the food bank reached out to community partners to help spread the word.
The first distribution took place last week at the food bank warehouses in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria, where 60 people showed up and 2,000 bags were handed out in one day.
This week, the food bank added Lompoc to the distribution, with the First United Methodist Church providing the location, because of the large population of federal penitentiary employees, Wilkins said.
He noted that along with the bags of food, the food bank volunteers and staff are handing out flyers listing the other community organizations that distribute food and what days and times they provide it.
“We only do this twice a week,” he said. “There are agencies that do it daily, like Lompoc Catholic Charities.”
In addition to helping federal workers make ends meet, the food bank distribution also has another purpose.
“The main thing is we’re really trying to destigmafy it,” Wilkins said, explaining most people think food distribution is for people who are out of work, with low incomes or homeless.
“These are people who are taking food money for the mortgage,” he said. “Food budgets are the first to get slashed.”
As the federal workers picked up food, they were asked which department they work for, mainly for statistical purposes.
“We want to find out which departments they’re coming from,” Wilkins said. “We’re not sure which agencies were affected. … Even parts of the federal government didn’t know which departments were shut down.”
The office where Gary Troester works illustrates why that might be.
Troester, who was picking up food Wednesday at the warehouse, said he works in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency as the farm loan manager and was furloughed when the shutdown started.
On Wednesday, he was called back to work — without pay — for four days.
In addition to the farm loan staff, Troester said his office includes the farm program staff, who worked through the start of the shutdown but are now furloughed; the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which has been working through the whole shutdown; and the Rural Development agency, which hasn’t worked at all during that time.
Troester just recently applied for unemployment, noting a lot of federal employees are just now doing the same.
“A lot of people thought (the shutdown) would be over sooner than this,” he said. “It’s a 10-day process to get unemployment. We have to re-evaluate where our money goes.
“This has gone on way too long,” he said of the shutdown. “And it doesn’t look like there’s any interest in solving it.”
By 2 p.m., the food bank in Santa Maria had served 34 people, and the Lompoc location had served about 24, said program support staff member Kelli Padilla.
Padilla said most of those served in Santa Maria were employees of the Bureau of Prisons, but others worked for USDA, NASA, the Treasury Department and the Transportation Security Administration.