The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 5, 2013

Shutdown: Already stressed local food pantries could face shortages

By Jessica Farrish
Register-Herald Reporter

— If lawmakers are unable to reach a budget deal soon, area residents and school districts could see a crisis of food shortages, according to church, nonprofit and educational leaders in the region.

Margaret O’Neal, executive director of the United Way of Southern West Virginia, said Friday that liaisons of the 34 agencies in five counties that receive goods from United Way have recently been requesting food items.

“We’re just now getting calls from food pantries,” she said. “With the government shut down we’re in right now, I fear that food is going to be critical unless something is done, quickly, because a lot of the (state) food programs are federally funded.”

Area nonprofit leaders said the need for food in the area isn’t new: The struggling economy has recently left many people in need of food, and local food kitchens have been serving more meals than usual for at least six weeks.

According to O’Neal, however, the June 2012 derecho and last October’s Superstorm Sandy had resulted in area food pantries being more depleted than usual over the past year.

A flood at The Salvation Army on South Fayette Street in Beckley on June 14 resulted in sewage destroying 3,500 pounds of food donated by Theatre West Virginia, 1,200 pounds of food donated by the United States Postal Service and “cases and cases” of food that had been donated by the United States Department of Agriculture, Capt. Robert Barber had reported.

Nonprofit food pantries had just started to recuperate, O’Neal said, when the federal government was shut down Tuesday due to lawmakers’ inability to come to an agreement on the budget.

At First Christian Church on Neville Street, Pastor Dan Snyder said more people than usual have been showing up to Carpenter’s Corner, the church’s ministry kitchen, for the past six weeks.

Carpenter’s Corner workers typically served 100 free lunches five days per week.

Snyder said that for the past six weeks, that number has spiked to 150 lunches a day.

“There’s been times, literally, it’s been filled to capacity,” reported Snyder. “We have to move people in and out to feed 150 people.

“We’re not the only one,” he added. “If you called every church that does something (with food kitchens), they’re seeing increased need and demand on their resources.

“Everybody’s in the same position because I don’t care what they say in Washington, people are out of work or underpaid,” he said. “The only way they’re making it is, there are organizations helping them along the way, like us, and now that the shutdown has happened, it’s going to get worse.”

Snyder pointed out that part-time jobs don’t pay enough for a family to live, and neither do full-time minimum wage jobs.

The church typically gives out 250 bags of groceries per year to residents who are too poor to afford food.

“But the last six weeks, we’ve literally been doing eight to 10 a week,” Snyder said. “We can’t keep up with demand.

“We’re putting up a sign, ‘We’re Out,’ because I can’t make the bags if I don’t have food.”

Funding to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) should continue through October. If there is no solution to the impasse in Congress, there may be no funds for the program in afterward. The program provides baby formula, cheese, vegetables, fruit and milk to women and children under age 5.

Around 46,000 West Virginias augment their household budget via WIC.

“Folks that are used to getting food and cheese are going to have to buy it now.”

He said his church, in conjunction with United Way of Southern West Virginia, has established a baby pantry to assist WIC recipients who must now purchase formula and food and don’t have enough money left over to buy baby items like diapers.

“We can help with that, in a limited sense,” he said. “We can do what we can do.

“As it drags on, it’s going to hit everybody around us.”

Those who receive food stamps through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were given their regular allotment of stamps this month.

However, the budget must be set for food stamps to be distributed in November — a fact Snyder said concerns him.

“If the shutdown goes longer or if after October people won’t be getting food stamps, then they’re going to turn to the churches for food and meals,” he said. “As it drags on, it’s going to hit everybody around us.

“I’m not sure all the churches in Raleigh County, working together, can fill the need here with what’s coming.”

In Fayette County, Schools Superintendent Keith Butcher said Friday that part of the county’s child nutrition program, which provides free meals at school, is federally funded via reimbursements.

“All meals before Oct. 1 came with last year’s budget,” said Butcher. “But any of our meals provided to students after Oct. 1, we’re not going to get our federal reimbursement.”

Butcher said the Fayette school system will be able to fund itself in the short-term.

“We can exist for a little while, but you can imagine, if we have to float all of the cost of our child nutrition program, at some point, we wouldn’t be able to do that,” he said. “If it goes on for some time, it could really put us in a bind.

“I think we’re all just praying that it’s short-term,” he added. “Let’s say it goes on longer than 30 days. We would begin to look at what we’re going to have to do.”

In Raleigh County, school lunches and meals are funded via a federal grant, which means the nutrition programs are less likely to be impacted, according to one central office employee.

Snyder said the shutdown “is hurting everybody.”

“It’s not a party issue,” he said. “They need to find a way to get this done, because I tell you, if this goes on and people don’t get food stamps in November, there’s going to be hungry people in our county, and nobody’s going to be able to meet the need.

“They’ll be lined up at my door Nov. 3,” he added. “I’ll give out every piece of food I have, but it’s not going to make up for what they don’t get in food stamps.”

— E-mail: jfarrish@register-herald.co