We’re in the midst of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, now at 28 days. Federal workers are shut out of their jobs — and paychecks — and many federal agencies are closed.
And those who benefit from government programs, like food stamps, are also at risk of going without needed resources. That has some Wisconsin families and others worried about the future of FoodShare, the state's food stamp program.
At the Coggs Center on Vliet Street in Milwaukee, an automated voice calls people with questions about FoodShare benefits up to customer service. Dontrae Parker Dotson is one of those people. He’s been getting FoodShare benefits, which are often referred to as food stamps, for about a year.
“Because I lost my job and my family still has to eat,” he says.
Every month Parker's Quest card is loaded with money for groceries. But because FoodShare is 100 percent federally funded, it’s been affected by the government shutdown. Parker says he understands he’ll be getting February’s benefits early, no benefits in February, and no benefits guaranteed afterward. He says the uncertainty is stressful.
“A lot of people [are] going to be out of food. A lot of people got kids. So, it affects them too, and they don’t know exactly what’s going on. We don’t know when we’ll be able to get the food stamps back, or when the government will open back up," he says. "So, you know you have to do for the time being, and just ride it out.”
Parker plans on buying canned goods to make the food last as long as possible.
Rebecca McAtee is director of Wisconsin’s FoodShare program, which is run by the state's Department of Health Services. She says it's her office's aim to let everyone in Parker’s shoes know they must budget their benefits.
February funds are coming in January because of a federal "Continuing Resolution" that just expired, and requires the funds to be apportioned within 30 days of its expiration. Using the resolution allows the government to continue the program without additional appropriations from Congress.
McAtee says the state's FoodShare office is doing everything it can to let people know. “We started a public campaign really talking about what this means for members," she says. "We’re doing daily stakeholder calls. We’ve done a mass email communication to our members, for those we have emails for. And then we are also doing a lot of public notifications.”
McAtee says her agency is also working on a contingency plan for March and beyond in case the federal government shutdown continues.
"The Midwest states are going to be talking about this, my counterparts in other states," she says. "We have some things that we’ve been thinking through, but until we can get more information from the federal government, we’re kind of in a position that we’re just going to be thinking of options and communicating it as we have more information available.”
McAtee notes that the federal government funds Wisconsin’s FoodShare program to the tune of $65 million per month.
An escalator ride to the Coggs building basement leads you to a food pantry. It’s run by local nonprofit Frieden’s Community Ministries. The pantry is stocked by Hunger Task Force, so people who can’t immediately get FoodShare benefits don’t have to leave the Coggs Building without food.
People can pick up packages of bread, along with pears, apples, other perishables and non-perishables. Cheryl Ousley works at the pantry. She says it's seen a spike in the number of people coming through the doors — almost twice as many as before the federal government shutdown.
“With the frenzy around FoodShare, and people wondering if their benefits are going to continue past February, I believe that’s just driving people down here,” she says.
Sherrie Tussler of Hunger Task Force says programs like FoodShare are the number one defense against hunger in the U.S. She fears there'll be "chaos" if the program doesn’t continue for March and beyond. "There’s gonna be such a great need for food," she says. "And the amount of food that food banks and food pantries have on hand will never be able to meet that need."
Tussler says she and other advocates will continue to push the issue so people don’t go hungry, in the event the shutdown continues.