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Lives in the Balance: Appalachian Food Banks and the Lasting Wake of the Government Shutdown

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Photo: Courtesy of MANNA Foodbank

With a new federal spending bill signed into law, a national emergency over illegal immigration at the country’s southern border declared and the second government shutdown in as many years now in the rearview, it might be tempting to think that the woes of the government furlough are behind us. But for many Appalachian communities the ripple effect can still be felt, particularly among the most vulnerable.

The 35-day shutdown lasted from December 22, 2018, through January 25 of this year, costing the federal government over $6 billion.

For many in rural communities in the mountains, that meant a lot more than closed parks and late tax documents–it meant standstills at work. And for thousands on the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP—the modern iteration of food stamps), a delay in their food stamps meant difficulty putting food on the table.

The sudden stoppage put additional stress on already-burdened area food pantries and food banks in some chronically underserved areas, and those effects have left a wake that could last months into the future.

The Mountain Area Nutritional Needs Alliance food bank (MANNA)—the primary food bank in Western North Carolina—scrambled their teams ahead of the shutdown to assess the scope of the situation and figure out who would be most affected.

There are seven National Parks in Western North Carolina, and regional headquarters for nine federal agencies in the Asheville area alone, all staffed by federal workers.  According to the National Treasury Employees Union, there are 6,216 federal employees in Congressional District 11, which stretches from Hickory all the way to the Tennessee border.

For the staff at MANNA, there was a big concern that with every missed paycheck, otherwise secure federal employees and their families could find themselves suddenly struggling.

MANNA is a major organization in the region and distributes more than 18 million pounds of food annually. MANNA partners with 220 local agencies in 16 counties throughout the region.

Photo: Courtesy of MANNA Foodbank

“We also did popup markets over at Asheville Regional Airport,” Mary Nesbitt, MANNA’s Chief Development Officer said. “We went out there so that the TSA folks and [other workers not receiving pay] would have easy access to food.”

At the airport alone, MANNA served 152 people over the course of three different free popup markets, where tables were piled high with a wide variety of fresh foods.

But the furloughed government employees weren’t the biggest burden for the food bank and their regional partner pantries. A disruption in the federally-funded SNAP benefit program left many families struggling to keep their cupboards full.

Nearly two months later, food pantries across Appalachia are still scrambling to meet increased demand.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture directed states to send out February SNAP benefits in mid-January ahead of the shutdown. This forced families to budget almost two-month’s worth of limited benefits that generally stop short of covering monthly food budgets.

“Typically, with SNAP benefits, the amount is used up within the first three weeks. So even apart from the shutdown—just in general because the SNAP benefits don’t stretch out through the whole month—more people will be coming to pantries during that last week of the month when we are on a normal cycle.”

During the shutdown, SNAP recipients had to stretch those benefits over 42 days, resulting in increased pressure on food banks to feed local families affected by the lapse in assistance.

Nesbitt and the rest of MANNA found themselves having to warn their 220 partner pantries to prepare sufficient supplies to account  for an increase in need long after the shutdown had ended, through the end of the month.

In 2015, a survey by the USDA found North Carolina to be the 8th most food insecure state in the nation. In the 23 counties that make up the western part of the state, 16.9 percent of the population goes without regular access to food, and more than 155,000 people receive food stamps.

And SNAP doesn’t fully cover this need, even without interruptions in services.

“The amount that a person receives in terms of SNAP benefits is on a sliding scale based on their income,” Nesbitt said. “Even the highest amount that a family would receive, if you compare it to the amount that a family would spend on groceries for the month, they don’t align.”

“People that are working poor, or people that are working at that $8 an hour job, their SNAP benefits, even with that small amount of income, can sometimes be as low as $42 per month because they have other income. Is it helpful? Yes, does it meet your needs for your food budget? No,” Nesbitt said.

Western North Carolina isn’t the only part of Appalachia still reeling from the shutdown. In New York, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier services 6 counties. With more than 73,000 people already at risk of hunger in the region, the food bank services more than 18,800 people every week, but according to the Evening Tribune, the food bank has seen a 45 percent increase in the pounds of food ordered by their partner pantries.

“SNAP is the first line of defense for hunger and it is not surprising that when something disrupts that safety net, people have to utilize the emergency food network,” President and CEO of the food bank Natasha Thompson told the Tribune. “The Food Bank and our partners can address food insecurity in the short term, but this is a reminder of how effective SNAP is in providing consistent financial and hunger relief.”

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, pantries there saw as high as a 166 percent increase in need, citing the delay of food stamps due to the shutdown. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank covers 11 counties with more than 400 partner pantries that service more than 326,000 food-insecure residents. The Post-Gazette reports that just at their Duquesne headquarters, they have seen a jump of 145 families all citing the deferred SNAP benefits as the reason they need additional help.

In the high country of Candler, right on the outskirts of Asheville, still within the limits of Buncombe County, nearly 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Montmorenci United Methodist Church has become a haven for the hungry, hosting weekly dinners every Monday night and a free market on Thursdays, distributing food donated by MANNA.

Montmorenci has seen a 20 percent rise this winter in the number of families serviced each week, from 75-80 families to well over 100 regularly attending their food events.

”What we are seeing across the board is an increase in people, for whatever set of circumstances, needing to turn to our pantries in order to get through the week and the month,” Nesbitt said.

Just last week, Congress voted to block President Trump’s emergency declaration over immigration, which in-part ended the shutdown in February, setting the stage for another potential showdown that could result in months of partisan gridlock. On top of that, the President’s just-released 2020 budget would slash $17.4 billion from SNAP this year, $220 billion over the next 10 years, leaving organizations like MANNA to pick up the slack.

“For every meal that we can provide, SNAP can provide 12 for people in need,” Nesbitt said. “We are big proponents of that resource being made available to people.”

Jonathan Ammons (@jonathanammons) is a writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician based in Asheville, North Carolina.