Food banks are ready to help federal workers. But for how long?

Tri-Cities Food Bank prepares for increased demand

Frances-anne Hiemstra, Tri-Cities Food Bank central office manager, explains how the organization is seeking additional donations of food and cash to meet increased demand as cold weather and the holiday season approaches.
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Frances-anne Hiemstra, Tri-Cities Food Bank central office manager, explains how the organization is seeking additional donations of food and cash to meet increased demand as cold weather and the holiday season approaches.

Tri-City charities are ready to step in to help people hit by the federal shutdown but it is uncertain how long they’ll be able to fill the gap.

The continuing partial federal shutdown left about 13,000 of the state’s 74,400 federal employees without a paycheck, along with putting at risk benefits for people receiving food assistance.

It’s uncertain how many unpaid federal workers are in the Tri-Cities.

The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides money for food to people in need, reaches about 20 percent of the households in Franklin County and 16 percent in Benton County, according to the American Community Survey for 2012 and 2016.

The record-setting partial federal shutdown is closing in on a month as President Donald Trump and the Congress continue to disagree about a $5.7 billion proposal to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

Spend food assistance wisely

The federal food assistance program didn’t lose its funding with the new year, but it only has enough to hand out benefits through February.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture moved up the date for paying out the February benefits into January. For the 900,000 people across Washington relying on the program, they will be getting those funds on Sunday.

Officials warn even if the federal government resumed operating fully on Monday, people won’t receive more money until March.

“Some recipients — those who get their benefits on the 20th of each month, for example — will be going two months between SNAP disbursements,” explained Babs Roberts, the Community Services Division director in the Economic Services Administration of the department. “People will want to ensure that the benefits they are receiving now last as long as possible.”

While the basic food program is affected, the Women, Infants and Children program has enough money to continue for several more months, said Kristen Maki with the Department of Health.

People should still be able to collect vouchers for food for at least the next few months.

Food banks offer help

Tri-Cities Food Bank officials say they are in a good position to help hungry families in the meantime.

Executive Director Tim Sullivan said the organization recently reached out on social media, saying their doors are open for anyone needing help.

“As with all our clients, we don’t ask why you need help, we just know that if you walk through our door, you need us ... and it’s why we’re here,” they posted in a Facebook message.

The food bank has locations in Richland, Kennewick and Benton City.

For the moment, the food bank is prepared to help because they did not have the normal decline in stock that often comes at the beginning of the year, said Sullivan.

“Our warehouses and shelves are full,” he said. “In our warehouse in particular we are in good shape. ... We can get our community through this month and the next month.”

The food bank receives six shipments of food a day, including shipments from a partnership with Costco, which helps supplement the meals they deliver to senior citizens stuck at home.

The program, which is similar to Meals on Wheels, is federally funded. In total, they feed about 40,000 people a year across the region.

While Sullivan is confident he will have food until the end of January, if the need stretches much longer, he may need to turn to the community for more donations.

The community ‘always responds’

One organization that supplies food to area food banks is 2nd Harvest.

It distributed more than 5.7 million pounds of food across 28 different locations in Benton and Franklin County, including food banks, churches, Meals on Wheels and the Union Gospel Mission.

The organization is prepared if the food banks they serve need more, said Julie Humphreys, the community relations manager for 2nd Harvest.

They’ve dealt with more dramatic situations, including a 2015 windstorm that left thousands in the Inland Northwest without power.

“Food was rotting in people’s refrigerators,” she said. “We saw a big need in a short time, so we turned back around to our community members who can help. ... The community always responds whenever we have a crisis.”

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As the federal government shutdown continues, Tri-City food bank officials say they’re prepared in the short term for an influx of federal workers who normally don’t receive food assistance. File Tri-City Herald

They also needed to step up deliveries during the 2008 recession and in other emergencies by turning to a network of food producers.

“This is what we do every day, all year long,” she said. “People are very generous. Hunger is something we can all relate to. ... We believe that hunger is unacceptable at any time.”

Northwest Harvest, a leading hunger-relief agency in the state, has called for an end to the partial government shutdown.

“Not only is this shutdown putting a great deal of financial strain on federal employees, contractors, and their families — it’s also disrupting basic access and distribution of healthy foods into our communities,” the organization said in a news release, noting the strain on financing for local farms on top of trade disputes and concerns that food safety inspections are being jeopardized.

Thomas Reynolds, the CEO of Northwest Harvest, said they’re seeing an increase in people visiting food banks across the state.

“Many of these first-time visitors are families of federal employees,” he said. “This is not right.”

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.