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SEABROOK – For the last two weeks of the 35-day government shutdown, Prince George’s County officials have emphasized the need for access to food for furloughed employees and contractors to ensure that those affected would not go a night without a meal.
From food drives to increased public notifications, county officials stressed the importance of providing food to those affected before Congress and President Donald Trump signed a short-term deal to temporarily reopen the government. Even after the completion of the deal, officials say that they are prepared if a long-tern solution is not in place by the Feb. 15 deadline.
“This is one item that we would like to take off for families,” County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said. “When people are in stress or in crisis, the last thing they should worry about is how to eat and how to provide food for their families and children so this is one of the ways that we can do to help.”
Numerous food drives have allowed residents to donate food for those impacted by the shutdown. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, County Council Member At-Large Mel Franklin joined the National Capital Baptist Convention (NCBC) of Washington, D.C. pass out turkey and ham dinners to 400-500 people, mostly furloughed employees. Council Member Sydney Harrison hosted an event on Jan. 26 at the Tree of Life Christian Ministries that passed out 700 lunches.
Alsobrooks teamed up with radio station WHUR 96.3 and FedEx to collect food for the Capital Area Food Bank outside the Wayne Curry Administration Building in Largo on Jan. 25. At the end of the drive, the county executive presented the organization a $50,000 donation to the Food Bank to provide families fruits and vegetables.
Senior Director of Innovation and Food Flow Marian Barton Peele said that the organization has seen a growth in the meals they provide since the shutdown. In a normal January, the Food Bank provides 3 million meals but that number has risen to 3.6 million this year.
The work being done by the county and its residents has been instrumental in providing more meals for those affected, Barton Peele said.
“It is heartwarming to see because this is neighbors helping neighbors in a critical time,” Barton Peele said. “Providing basic and critical need for folks is important; providing food is critical and if we can help with that and take that need off the table then we are accomplishing our mission.”
The access to these opportunities is important but also daunting for some who are not used to asking for assistance. Betty Edwards, 73, works in the food court as a contracted employee at the National Gallery of Art, which has been closed due to the shutdown. She was unsure whether to attend events like the food drive and how respective people would react to her situation.
“I’ve been working for over 40 years in the same place and it is awkward to come out looking for food,” Edwards said. “It has been terrible (since the shutdown began) and any little change you do have, you do not have much and you have to skimp and see what you can pay.”
While much of the focus has been to improve one’s access to food, Alsobrooks said the county has an emergency assistance fund that help with rental payments and other financial needs. She reiterated that Pepco and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) are establishing extended payment plans for residents and not cutting utilities during the shutdown for people like Edwards, who were unsure how much longer they could have survived during the stoppage.
“I’m just trying to get by day-by-day,” Edwards said. “I just want to go back to work.”
The Prince George’s County Health Department released a public notice on Jan. 23 to remind residents who are furloughed federal government employees and contractors that they are eligible to participate in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) assistance program. Information on how one is eligible has also been displayed throughout the county’s social media accounts.
Diane Young, associated director for the Maternal and Child Health Division, said the program is based on household income so if someone suddenly loses their job, they would be automatically eligible. If one wanted to know if they are eligible, Young encouraged people to contact their offices to learn more on the requirements.
“We did not think that any federal workers or contractors considered the possibility that they would be eligible for the program,” Young said. “Income guidelines are much higher than other social programs, that’s why we really put it out there because it’s based on your family income and the number of people in your household. Surprisingly, some people become eligible and they just don’t know it.”
Claudia Martinez, 26, recently signed up for the WIC program after finding out she was pregnant and would not continue working until giving birth in early February. The Cheverly resident said she understands the hesitancy for one to apply but encourages those who have not worked since the start of the shutdown to apply.
“They are starving as much as anybody else,” Martinez said. “Not everyone who works for the government have high paying jobs and rent and bill payments do not wait for anyone. One less burden for their family if they have access to food.”
The program has enough funding until March, Young said, and additional funding can be provided by shuffling money from other resources or by the USDA if the shutdown continues.
Even as government employees slowly start to return back to work this week, Young said that there is a 30-day certification period where one who applies for WIC will have access to its benefits for up to a month. This would guarantee a family at least one month of food in case Congress and President Trump cannot find a full-term solution that may lead to another shutdown after Feb. 15.
“They did not put themselves in this situation,” Young said. “… Should it pick up again on Feb. 15, we will go back to the 30-day period to certify folks and they have that entire 30-day period to use up their benefits until the government reopens and they do not need to pay back anything.”