This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 2 to reflect that the government shutdown was temporarily avoided.
With a government shutdown temporarily halted, the need for assistance and resources remains but not at the heightened state that would have come about if federal nutrition programs, such as WIC (the Women, Infants and Children Program), that benefit Montgomery County food banks and assistance groups, were shuttered.
According to Heather Bruskin, the director of the Montgomery County Office of Food systems Resilience, there are over 16,000 children on average and over 12,000 women in the county who receive WIC benefits.
Bruskin said the shutdown could have “tremendous impacts” and explained that WIC is impacted immediately after a government shutdown, which means families won’t have access to the benefits they rely on for grocery shopping, retail and access to food, she said.
“These are people who already needed to stretch their resources as far as they could to provide access for their families and already may be skipping meals to provide more food for their kids,” Bruskin said. “So, you know, it just shifts the pressure and the strain further both on those households as well as the safety net network that supports them.”
Congress didn’t have much time left on the clock with the Sept. 30 midnight deadline fast approaching but was able to strike a deal to keep the government funded for 45 days (Nov. 17). This prevented a shut down that would have resulted in all federal workers being furloughed or forced to work without being paid.
“There may be families who because their income source is on hold, and for the contractors they won’t even get back pay potentially, they may not typically be reliant on food assistance but due to a sudden halt in their income may be needing support for the first time,” Bruskin said.
According to the Montgomery County Economic Development Commission, 11% of the county’s employment base were federal workers in 2022. The challenges the county faces ahead are communicating what the impacts will be on nutrition benefits and assisting people and families who may be experiencing food insecurity for the first time, Bruskin said.
The Maryland Department of Health is working to identify steps to alleviate the effects of an interruption to WIC, according to MDH spokesman Chase Cook. More than 123,000 Maryland, low-income mothers, infants and children under 5 receive WIC benefits.
The Maryland Department of Human Services did not expect that a shutdown would decrease the supplies that food banks receive through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Food Assistance Program, known as TEFAP, according to spokeswoman Amber Washington, because the state orders the food several months in advance, the Capital News Service reported.
The state would fund the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits using general funds if necessary, and request federal reimbursement after a shutdown, Washington said. The Temporary Disability Assistance Program uses state general funds and will continue unaffected.
According to Bruskin, SNAP was set to continue uninterrupted into October while the status for November was less certain.
Recipients of food from the Women, Infants and Children program would have seen reduced benefits within days of a federal shutdown, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters earlier this week.
Head Start grants, too, would pause, jeopardizing early childhood care and education for more than 9,000 Maryland families.
One resource Bruskin recommended was the Montgomery County Food Council’s food assistance resource directory. There are over 100 food banks, food pantries and meal services in Montgomery County available to county residents for food assistance and the Food Council lists those sites on a map online.
Food banks and pantries statewide are already straining to fill the gap from the end of COVID benefits and are bracing to meet additional demand if a government shutdown furloughs federal and military workers.
“When those federal resources ended, it puts much greater pressure on local governments and local nonprofit organizations to fill those gaps and help feed families who are no longer able to access it in school lunch rooms or in grocery stores the way they had during the pandemic,” Bruskin said. “And so, that combined with the fact that there’s tremendous inflation that’s impacting food prices, and is a real challenge for a lot of our families.”
Brett Meyers, the founder and executive director of Rockville-based Nourish Now, a non-profit food assistance organization that focuses on food recovery to end food insecurity and reduce food waste, said that they will be looking to find new food donors to work with and volunteers to help, and are planning to bring more food to distribution sites
“It seems like [the government shutdown] has a really major effect on obviously any employees that [are not] in poverty or not facing food insecurity, but because of the government shutdown it leads to that,” he said. “So, it just adds another layer to the work that we do.”
Meyers told MoCo360 that the potential shutdown would have been the fourth the company has seen since starting the organization in 2011.
During the first shutdown Nourish Now faced in October 2013, the company received around five to seven calls a day from federal employees needing food assistance, according to Meyers. Fast forward to the last government shutdown – which lasted 34 days from December 2018 to January 2019 – Meyers said the organization received about 15 calls per day.
“This is why we’re here. We’re here to help in slow times or normal times, typical times or COVID times,” Meyers said.
Food Assistance Resources:
- Manna Food Center food distribution sites
- How to receive food from Manna resource page
- Manna Pop-Up-Pantry schedule in English and Spanish
- Interfaith Works Essential Needs Programs, provides emergency resources, food and clothing
- Manna’s Community Food Rescue
- Crossroads Farmer Market Fresh Checks
- Little Free Pantry map (search by location)
- Map of food assistance sites by the Montgomery County Food Council (MCFC)
- SNAP enrollment assistance from MCFC
- Volunteer Opportunities with MCFC partners
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