The most in-demand toys for children are becoming more complex, and some can turn dangerous if not properly vetted or used.
As the partial government shutdown stretches into its fourth week and sets a new record for the longest shutdown in U.S. history, furloughed employees and government contractors are grappling with the difficult realities of living without an income.
We check in with local food banks and charities that are ramping up their efforts to provide food and emergency assistance to thousands of families. But as the shutdown drags on and resources dwindle, these organizations say they can only meet this sudden and unexpected spike in the demand for their services if the community rallies to pitch in.
Produced by Monna Kashfi
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast American Moor the new play at D.C. Anacostia Playhouse that explores the challenges of auditioning for Shakespeare while black. We'll check in with the actor and direction of the production and also get an update on how the local community responded to the Anacostia Playhouse being robbed on Christmas Day.
KOJO NNAMDIBut first, local food banks and aid organizations are stepping up their efforts and expanding their services to meet the needs of federal employees and their families during this partial shutdown. Joining me now to discuss what the spike in demand for these services means for local charities and what you can do to help is Radha Muthiah. She is the CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank. Radha, thank you for joining us.
RADHA MUTHIAHThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Stephanie Berkowitz, CEO of Northern Virginia Family Service. Stephanie, thank you for joining us.
STEPHANIE BERKOWITZThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIRadha, the Capital Area Food Bank is the largest food assistance program in our region. What kind of increase have you seen in the demand for your services since the shutdown began?
MUTHIAHWe've seen a very substantial increase since the shutdown has begun. Just to give you some perspective, on a typical January, we'd be serving the equivalent of about three million meals per month. And what we're anticipating now is an additional 300,000 to 600,000 meals. So up to a 20 percent increase based on the need that we're seeing the region.
NNAMDIWho are you hearing from and is it the usual population that Capital Area Food Bank serves?
MUTHIAHIt's actually a really good question because it's a very different population. Our usual population are those individuals, who are on food stamps and we are a provider of supplementary nutrition to them. So food stamps tend to cover about two and a half to three weeks of their food needs during the course of a month and we step in for that last week or so.
MUTHIAHBut we've been hearing more recently are individuals, who are calling into our Hunger Lifeline and are asking us just information about the emergency food assistance network in this area. They're identifying themselves as federal government workers or contractors, who are lower income, and have found themselves in the surprising position after having missed a paycheck of needing to be resourceful to acquire and meet their food needs.
NNAMDIStephanie, Northern Virginia's Family Services is offering an array of services to people affected by the shutdown including financial assistance with rent and mortgage payments, money for utility bills, food assistance, advice on dealing with creditors. What kind of demand are you seeing for these services?
BERKOWITZRight. Like Radha, we have also seen a 10 percent increase in our requests for assistance at our hunger resource center. And beyond that we're seeing an increase in callers who are concerned about a broad array of situations in their life. You know, for example, we had a woman who's eight months pregnant and her husband is a federal contractor. And she's calling wondering if she's going to have health insurance at the time her baby is born.
BERKOWITZSo the anxiety that is starting to prevail and the folks with the uncertainty that we're seeing is really significant. And like the Capital Area Food Bank, Northern Virginia Family Service is seeing the impact with federal contractors, with government employees who have furloughed, and also the broad array of ancillary workers in our region who are just as impacted by folks who are not receiving paychecks, so Uber and Lyft drivers and cab driver and restaurant workers.
BERKOWITZWhen people stop out going out to restaurants during the day and salaries start going out and wages start going down. People don't send their children to day care, so child care workers are losing pay. The ripple effect is significant.
NNAMDIRadha, the Capital Area Food Bank organized pop-up food distribution centers this past weekend. How did the idea for these pop-ups come about? And how did you choose the locations?
MUTHIAHSo we were hearing through callers to the Hunger Lifeline as well as through our partner network -- we've got about 450 partners in the area and we're very proud that Northern Virginia Family Services is a partner of the Capital Area Food Bank as well. So we were hearing about this increased need. And that combined with the fact that this was slightly different population that we were serving, we knew we couldn't serve them all through our traditional channels.
MUTHIAHAnd so what we did was we looked at where federal government workers live in the area and we overlaid that against areas that we know to be traditionally more food insecure. And that's how we define the five areas where we had these pop-up distribution markets. And essentially what they were were, you know, we had the capacity to deliver a couple bags of produce and a couple boxes of non-perishable items to up to 250 people at each location. So we were prepared to serve about 1250. What we saw was a doubling of that in terms of people, who came to line up.
MUTHIAHAnd just within a couple of hours of the markets being opened, we served about 2400 people.
NNAMDIStephanie, there's also a secondary impact that your organization is helping to provide resources for and that's mental health.
NNAMDIHave you seen an increase in people seeking support for mental health services?
BERKOWITZYou know, we fully anticipate that this is what happens when a community is in crisis and individuals are in crisis is we are resilient people by nature. But there comes a point where we tax our own resources and we don't know where to turn. And that is the secondary impact that we have already begun to see and that we really anticipate taking hold in these coming weeks as the uncertainty of when people will receive that next paycheck continues to feel the impact of that uncertainty.
NNAMDIWhat kind of resources are you making available to people, when it comes to mental health and what's the need that you're seeing?
BERKOWITZSure. You know, we work throughout the community to help build resilience. This is what we've been doing for 100 years and we'll continue to do it. We respond to communities in crisis. We have mental health counselors on our team who are here every day when people are uncertain about where to turn. We're going to do resiliency building and capacity within people and within the communities and we continue. We'll be a resource to folks to help them get the resources that they need today to get them through this crisis.
NNAMDIWell, you talked about the ripple of this. Let's go to Nancy in Washington D.C. Nancy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NANCYHi. I wanted to call, because I am obviously very worried and upset about the government shutdown. But what I'm suffering in my household is that I have an ex-spouse, an ex-husband, who's employed by the federal government and, because his salary has been cut my child support has stopped. So I don't have any ways of getting benefits or any kind of financial relief, because I'm not technically employed by the government. So I just wanted to share that that I'm a secondary receiver. But we, you know, heavily depend on child support for our finances.
NNAMDIAre you looking for any -- go ahead. Go ahead.
NANCYSorry. No. Go ahead.
NNAMDIAre you looking for any kind of guidance that one of our guests might be able to provide?
NANCYSure. Sure. What -- like what do I do, now that I'm also suffering financially and I'm not technically -- I don't have a federal I.D. You know, I'm dependent of funds, my child support, but half my living expenses and I don't know what to do.
NNAMDIRadha, what advice can you give to Nancy?
MUTHIAHSure. What I would suggest is first of all, you know, your husband can certainly come to one our different pop-up locations. We are committed to holding these pop-up markets every weekend until the partial shutdown is over, and quite frankly until individuals get their next paychecks. We know that there's often a little bit of a lag there.
MUTHIAHSo we would encourage him to attend. He can go onto our website at capitalareafoodbank.org to know where these sites are going to be this weekend. And we understand that people, who are looking for food assistance have to juggle many different elements of their budget. And so we are able to support on the food front. But actually on the website when you go in, you'll be able to identify other service providers that may meet some of your other budgetary needs in, you know, in an area close to your home.
NNAMDIThank you very much for you call, Nancy. And good luck to you. Shawn in Tacoma Park wants to know how he can help contractors. Shawn, your turn.
SHAWNYeah, I'm a federal worker, but I'm actually going to be okay thanks in part to the back bill pay that many of our local federal representatives passed last week. My bank, my credit union actually is going to give me a loan that's going to help me make ends meet until my next paycheck comes. But what folks don't have are the wage workers, like everything else in our society it's the most vulnerable that are the most impacted by crisis.
SHAWNAnd I'm wondering if we want -- I have a lot of friends, fellow civil servants that also want to help out the folks that cook meals and clean our halls. Is there a specific charity or donation that targets those individuals that seem the most at risk right now? And if so what is it? Where's the best place to send donations if they're worried about those wage worker employees at our federal facilities?
BERKOWITZRight. Thank you for the question. You know, Northern Virginia Family Service, we're grateful to be partnering with the United Way of the National Capital Area along with the Capital Area Food Bank and Catholic charities. Across the three of our organizations, we are reaching the entire D.C. metro area for support just as you have mentioned. There are opportunities to go on all of our websites and donate to volunteer to see how you can help give back during these critical times.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Shawn. And now James in Washington D.C. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESOkay. I just have one question regarding -- I'd like to start by saying thank you, Kojo, for having me. But also in a lot of the great work that is currently being done for the federal employees. But I have a question on why don't more federal employees have, you know, six months or three months saved up for times like this, because these are -- I would say, you know, unorthodox and usually out of the box and most of the time they are getting paid. Why aren't they saving more of that money up?
NNAMDIWell, how much are they getting paid? You don't know exactly what category of federal employee that we're talking about here. Here's Radha.
MUTHIAHYes. I think, you know, as part of our analysis, we looked very carefully at all the GS levels and what the income ranges were within each GS level. And what we noticed is there's several GS that if I remember correctly, it's sort of five, six, seven, or thereabouts were the incomes levels are just for a family of four, you know, just above the poverty line or very close to. And so for those individuals while they're earning an income they are very much living paycheck to paycheck.
MUTHIAHAs we all know, this area has become increasingly an expensive to live in. So the amount of the family's budget that goes to meeting housing related costs and transport and things like that are much higher. So there are individuals, who I think are saving when they can, but, you know, missing one paycheck and God forbid two certainly puts them in a very vulnerable situation.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, James. The bigger than expected turn out you had, Radha at the pop-up food markets are clearly and indication of an increasing need for food and human services during this time in our region. Are you planning on more pop-ups and how will you choose the next sites?
MUTHIAHWe are planning on more pop-ups just based on what we saw this past weekend. We are -- how we're choosing sites, we're going about that in a couple of different ways. Again, looking at what we did last week, concentration of federal workers and how that overlays with food in secure areas. There was certainly more than five we could have chosen and so we will increase that number now.
MUTHIAHSecond, we did informal surveys of those who are in our lines these past weekend in terms of where they were coming from. So we have a better sense of those areas that are closer to their homes that we could set up pop-up markets as well. And the third way is we're actually distributing a Twitter survey and a Facebook survey in the next few hours, which will be kept open over the next 24 to 48 hours so that individuals themselves can suggest where they would like to go to and what's more convenient. And based on all of that data we will determine where our sites will be, but we're likely will ramp up to two or three additional sites beyond the five that we had this past weekend.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on a community of support for people affected by the government shutdown. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Later on the broadcast we'll be discussing the play currently at the Anacostia Playhouse in Washington. It's called American Moor. Right now we're discussing the community of support for those federal employees and contractors affected by the partial government shutdown. We're talking with Radha Muthiah. She's the CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank. Stephanie Berkowitz is the CEO of the Northern Virginia Family Service.
NNAMDIStephanie, many of the people your organization has been helping since the shutdown began have never had to rely on social assistance. This is all new to them. For some people there seems to be a stigma associated with assessing this type of help. How have you been addressing that challenge? What do you say to people who just uncomfortable asking for help?
BERKOWITZRight. I think that the most important message that it is so critical to reach out. That is why we are here. That is why organizations like us are here. There's nothing to be ashamed of. These are situations that are well beyond people's ability to have planned, to have predicted. I think this goes to show how many people in this region do live on the edge and do live paycheck to paycheck.
BERKOWITZWe have a great example of that at our Hunger Resource Center in Manassas, we had a family who came who we hadn't seen since the recession. So it's been 10 years. They were back on their feet and here they are. They came out to the Hunger Resource Center in this past week and they brought friends and neighbors with them. And I think that is a critical message that just reminds everybody that it is okay. And that is why resources like Northern Virginia Family Service, Capital Area Food Bank, and so many organizations like ours are here. We are here to help.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, here's Janet in Silver Spring. Janet, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JANETYes. I'm a low income senior. I have housing choice voucher and the newspaper said Friday that the rental subsidies are in limbo. And I've out lived everybody I'm close to. Does this mean that they're not going to pay my housing choice voucher and would I be homeless? I can't afford to pay it if they don't pay for February. I'm paid up for January. And who can I go to to find out more and for support in Montgomery County?
NNAMDIWe don't have Montgomery County represented here. But I don't know if either of our guests can tell you exactly where you can go in Montgomery County or whether or not you've been -- you get a check. Have you been calling Montgomery County officials?
JANETWell, you know, the government was closed yesterday with the snow.
JANETAnd this is the Housing and Urban development program.
NNAMDIGrant -- okay.
JANETThat's where the money comes from and aren't they all on government shutdown?
NNAMDIYes. But I think Montgomery County government is open. And Montgomery County government officials should be able to tell you what the circumstance are and where -- whether or not you'll be a getting a check and if not where you can get some help. So I would try Montgomery County government.
JANETWhat I'm saying is the money is funded from HUD. The county just gives me the voucher, but the money and whether or not we get the money is determined by HUD.
NNAMDIWell, we do know how employees are affected. We don't know how payments to individuals are necessarily affected and that's one of the reasons it's called a partial shutdown. So, again, Montgomery County employees might be able to give you the information that you need. But we do not have it here right now, but thank you very much for your call and hopefully you'll be able to get some more solid answers elsewhere.
NNAMDIRadha, the same question I asked of Stephanie to you. What you been hearing from people using the food bank for the first time and how do you help people overcome their feelings about asking for help?
MUTHIAHYou know, it's a very important question. We've certainly been seeing individuals experience what I would call sort of an identity shift over the last couple of weeks. We've had individuals who've stood in line this weekend who said, Gosh, I was the one who organized the Feds Feeds Families program in my agency and I never thought I'd be standing in line, you know, to get food. So we've heard comments like that.
MUTHIAHWe had an individual come in to the food bank last Friday, because we had 30,000 pounds of produce that needed to be bagged into small 10 pound sort of allotments if you will. And she said that she felt she had to do something to earn the free food that she was going to get at one of the pop-up markets on Saturday. So she wanted to come in and help do her part. So certainly people are experiencing a range of emotions from guilt to pride to concern that they're taking away food that might have -- should rightly go to someone who is living at the poverty line or below.
MUTHIAHSo we've explained to individuals that, you know, just as Stephanie said it's no fault of their own. And organizations like ours and the communities here to be able to rally together and support. But certainly we're not taking away from those who we would traditionally serve in order to serve our federal government workers and contractors. This is very much over and above what we would typically be doing.
NNAMDIOnto Mark in Washington D.C. Mark, your turn.
MARKHi. Yeah, I'm with Washington Improv Theater and I'm calling just to let people know about a free improv workshop that Washington Improv Theater is offering this Friday at noon. It's the third workshop that we're offering for furloughed fed employees. I know it's not the same as food or money, but people have found it's a really social and creative outlet and just an opportunity to escape for two hours and remember that they're also playful human beings who can still laugh despite circumstances.
NNAMDIThank you for call. Tomorrow we'll be talking in our broadcast about some furloughed federal employees who are being offered jobs -- or taking jobs as substitute teachers in order to help make ends meet during this time. Onto Jacky in Washington. Jacky, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JACKYHi. This is Jacky DeCarlo from Mana Food Center in Montgomery County. Thanks to Stephanie and Radha for their leadership. I was just calling in really quickly to let your previous caller know that if she dials 311 that will take her directly to the county's referral service for health and human services to address.
NNAMDIAnd I hope she's still listening.
JACKYThe housing -- yeah, I hope she's still listening as well. And I certainly want to underscore what Stephanie and Radha had said about the identity shift and the lack of -- feeling of being ashamed. One very thin silver lining if you will is that we at Mana in addition to seeing increased requests for help. We're also seeing increased volunteerism from folks who are furloughed. So it's a sign of the community turning out to support one another. If they're not in a paycheck to paycheck mode, but they're not actively at their desks, they are trying to volunteer.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for you call. Radha, obviously your first priority is to address the pressing need that people have right now for food. But what are some of the long term lingering effects that a crisis like this can create for people when it comes to food insecurity?
MUTHIAHThere are a couple here and I would break it down to sort of a medium term impact we're looking at and then a longer term one. So food is the part of the budget that tends to get cut or squeezed whenever there are, you know, other competing demands. Typically you can't negotiate your rent. You know, you've got to pay for medication, child care, etcetera. So school ends -- food rather ends up being squeezed. So what that means is people go from eating what are more expensive, but highly nutritious foods to cheaper sort of foods to be able to satisfy calorie intake, but it comes at a cost to their health.
MUTHIAHSo a prolonged shutdown and prolonged sort of poor eating patterns will lead to risk factors that increase some of the health diseases, like, you know, heart disease or diabetes, high blood pressure, etcetera. So those are some of the things that we look at if this were to continue. Beyond the current government shutdown, our concern also is looking into February and beyond about Snap benefits.
MUTHIAHSo as we've mentioned earlier, the audience that we're addressing now is an atypical audience for us. Our usual audience or clients, if you will, are those who receive food stamps. We've had assurance that the February food stamp allocation will be met, but we're hearing that that's going to be distributed on January 20th.
NNAMDIAnd that can pose a problem.
MUTHIAHThat can indeed pose a problem. Food stamp -- that allocation is generally used up within two and a half or three weeks. And so that might suggest that by the 10th or so of February, people may have used up the majority if not all of their food stamp allocation for the month of February. So we would have two to, you know, three weeks of greater levels of food insecurity in our area. So that's something that we are certainly planning for and preparing for given some of the circumstances that we and our clients find ourselves in.
NNAMDIStephanie, are you concerned that meeting this increased demand can have a negative effect on your usual services? Where will the additional resources you'll be needing come from?
BERKOWITZWe rely on the generosity of the community every day to provide the services that we do and we know that when our community is need the community steps up. There are public partners, our private partners, our corporate partners. As our caller from Mana mentioned, we've had increased requests about volunteerism, increased donations that have begun to come in. When people know where to contribute and how to contribute and what the needs are, we always see the community rally.
BERKOWITZSo we are looking forward to continuing in that partnership. We do anticipate down the road some increased needs, some challenge stretching our organizations, our capacities to serve. We have the infrastructure to make it happen, but we need the resources from the community to help support those in need today.
NNAMDIWe heard from Sarah in D.C. who wrote in an email, Most Americas not just those affected by the shutdown do not even have $400 in savings. Caller with the savings question brought to mind the president's claim that unpaid workers will "make adjustments." How does a recent college graduate in a GS5 job with student loans and first apartment rent make adjustments? How does a cleaner working for a contractor make adjustments? How do the retailers on the federal building such as La Fonte Plaza make adjustments?
NNAMDII guess those are some of the problems that we are seeing emerging right now. Here is Tatiana in Washington D.C. Tatiana, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
TATIANAThank you for taking my call. I am a freelance sign language interpreter. So I work for multiple agencies, who contract with multiple federal agencies. So although I think it's great and fabulous that furloughed employees are getting other help from other resources and places that are providing that, I don't have a federal I.D. specific to any agency. So as freelance interpreters, we don't qualify for any of those additional perks, just wanted to bring that up.
NNAMDIAnd how are you making out in this situation?
TATIANAI'm using up the money that I have in my account and in saving and looking for, you know, non-federal worker, which is what all the rest of us are doing. So we're all competing for the same jobs at this time.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you for very much for you call and good luck to you. And now Tony in Washington D.C. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TONYHi. This is Tony (word?) with the Greater Washington Community Foundation.
TONYI just wanted to -- hi, Kojo. Hi, everyone. I just wanted to commend the non-profits, who are mobilizing very very quickly to be able to respond to the emerging needs of our neighbors. It's furloughed workers. It's contractors. It's small businesses and businesses in general. I just want to make sure that we remember to push our congressional representatives to reopen government, so as much as we can do mobilize and respond quickly.
TONYWe just can't fill in the gaps that are being left by these decisions. We can't let up on pushing our congressional representatives to open government. The other things I wanted to mention is that what we're hearing from our other non-profit partners is the increase in calls related to the caller from Montgomery County around eviction prevention services along with the additional needs around food and immediate cash assistance.
TONYI also just want to recognize that the community really is stepping up. We're getting responses with donations to our resilience fund, which was put in place a year and a half ago to be able to respond quickly to some of the shifting policy changes that the federal government has been constantly barraging us with.
NNAMDIIndeed. That's my final question to you, Stephanie and Radha, what else -- what more do you need from the community? What can people do to help? Starting with you Radha.
MUTHIAHSure. I think, you know, as we're increasing the number of pop-up markets that we have this weekend, we're looking to increase the amount of produce that we're packing. So we're looking at 60 to 80,000 pounds of produce that we'll need to be packed into small 10 pound bags. So we certainly have an increase for volunteers. And so we encourage volunteers to go onto to our website and to come support the cause.
MUTHIAHAs we've also looked at this additional, you know, 20 percent of the population that we're going to be servicing, for January alone it looks we will need about $300,000 additional in financial resources to meet this need that is serving up to 600,000 meals this month. So we've had generous support from corporate individuals and foundations. And we would encourage those groups to please continue, because it doesn't look like this is ending any time soon. And we could use the support.
NNAMDIRadha Muthiah, CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank. Stephanie Berkowitz, what more can the community do to help?
BERKOWITZI would echo Radha's comments food donations, gift cards, volunteers, broader financial assistance. At the long term impact on folks is in front of us and we need to respond today to help ensure that they don't go down a path that they can't get out of. It's very quickly to move into homelessness. It's very hard to get back out of it.
NNAMDIStephanie Berkowitz, the CEO of the Northern Virginia Family Service. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, American Moor, the play currently at D.C.'s Anacostia Playhouse. It explores the challenges of auditioning for Shakespeare while black. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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