Amid shutdown, NJ food pantries get squeezed by struggling workers
It's a fact that may perplex the Trump administration's millionaire commerce secretary, but a growing number of federal employees in the Garden State who are not getting a paycheck are turning to food banks.
“We’re seeing them in our local pantries and soup kitchens throughout the state, in our own pantry down in Egg Harbor Township in Atlantic County," said Carlos Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.
He noted many people started showing up as soon as they missed their first paycheck, including Coast Guard members, IRS and TSA workers.
He said the surge in demand isn’t surprising, especially because the first paycheck that was missed came right after the holiday season. People who had planned to pay off holiday bills along with their regular expenses were left empty handed.
As the federal shutdown has dragged on for more than a month, stories of hardships by federal workers have piled up.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross got criticized this week for being out of touch when he questioned why federal workers were turning to food pantries.
"Well, I know they are, and I don't really quite understand why," he said. "The obligations that they would undertake, say borrowing from a bank or a credit union, are, in effect, federally guaranteed. So the 30 days of pay that some people will be out ... there's no real reason why they shouldn't be able to get a loan against it."
In a follow-up interview with Bloomberg, Ross said he was "painfully aware" that workers were suffering hardships. He added that in his earlier remarks, he'd been trying to let workers know that credit union loans were available for those "experiencing liquidity crises."
In response to these and other comments by administration officials, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi evoked Marie Antoinette.
"Is this the 'Let them eat cake' kind of attitude?" she said.
"Secretary Ross, they just can't call their stock broker and ask them to sell some of their shares," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., added.
Rodriguez noted many working families are working paycheck to paycheck.
“They do not have what they need in savings. They cannot afford to put into savings enough to deal with any economic shock," he said.
Jennifer Apostol, the director of the Middlesex County Food Organization and Outreach Distribution Services program, said supplies donated through the holiday season are dwindling.
“What we’re anticipating is that this shutdown continues and folks continue to go without a paycheck, they’re going to start going out to the pantries and looking for assistance," she said.
She expects a surge next month.
“At that point is when our supplies are traditionally low, so unfortunately it might be a perfect storm of where supplies are at their lowest and need is going to be at its highest.”
Rodriguez stressed people affected by the shutdown should know that help is one click away at cfbnj.org, where users can find pantries closest to their homes or workplace.
People can also make a donation at the website. Every dollar helps support up to three meals.
Apostol said her program provides supplies for 120 food pantries in Middlesex, and if people would like to help they can call her at 609-409-5033 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.