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Food agencies creating 'emergency market’ for federal workers squeezed by shutdown

An outdoor food distribution site will be located under I-95 at Front and Tasker Streets in South Philadelphia.

Food from Philabundance is loaded onto a truck. The hunger-relief agency will be collaborating with partners to create an Emergency Market to help feed federal workers hurt by the partial government shutdown.
Food from Philabundance is loaded onto a truck. The hunger-relief agency will be collaborating with partners to create an Emergency Market to help feed federal workers hurt by the partial government shutdown.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

For the first time in its 35-year history, Philabundance is enacting its disaster plan in Philadelphia, to quickly distribute food to federal workers facing hunger because of the partial government shutdown.

The hunger-relief agency is combining with Share Food Program, which supplies 500 food pantries in the region, as well as Nutritional Development Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to create what’s being called the Emergency Market.

It will be an outdoor food distribution site to be located under I-95 at Front and Tasker Streets in South Philadelphia, according to Stef Arck-Baynes, director of communications for Philabundance. The market will be open to federal workers who show their identification between 10 and 11 a.m. every Wednesday, beginning next week. The Philadelphia region has around 45,000 federal employees, but it’s not clear how many are furloughed or working for no pay.

Arck-Baynes said there’s a chance the market may move to an indoor location at some point, although plans are still being formulated. The market will run until two weeks after the shutdown is ended, to cover any employees who may not immediately receive paychecks when everyone is back to paid work, she added.

While Philabundance has distributed food to sites where calamities have occurred in the past, such as in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017, it hasn’t coordinated disaster food distribution in Philadelphia before, Arck-Baynes said.

“We’re doing this quickly,” said Arck-Baynes, adding that “we don’t even have the food right now. We’re looking for it.”

Turning to the public, Philabundance is asking for donations to build a stockpile of food. The agency is using its website and social media to get out the word about its fundraiser, called “Food for the Furloughed."

The agency plans to buy long-lasting produce staples such as potatoes, onions, and apples, Arck-Baynes said. It also has reached out to Share on West Hunting Park Avenue. Share has a supply of food purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture prior to the shutdown on Dec. 22.

“We have grapes, split peas, and milk,” said Samantha Mogil, manager of government and community affairs for Share. “I’ll see what else.” She added that the archdiocese would augment the hastily cobbled-together Wednesday larder with canned beans and tuna.

Arck-Baynes said the mix of food will be different each week: “At this point, we don’t know what we’re going to get.”

Neither does she know how many people will need to be fed.

“We literally have no idea how many people will show up,” she said. But she added she’s confident there will be enough food for anyone who needs it.

As the partial shutdown continues, anti-hunger advocates fear people will find themselves without enough to eat. Local food pantries supplied by Philabundance and Share are reporting that federal workers are beginning to show up.

"This demonstrates just how many Americans are one missed paycheck away from hunger,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, a New York-based nonprofit that fights hunger.

He added that even people with above-poverty salaries such as federal workers can face the desperation of hunger quickly after one or two paychecks stop.

“That’s illustrative of the general poverty problem in America,” Berg said, explaining that so many people fall in and out of poverty on a regular basis. “The number of Americans who are sometimes poor is 10 times the number of people who are perpetually poor.”

The impetus for the creation of the Emergency Market began Monday, said Arck-Baynes, when a group of politicians — including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) and Mayor Jim Kenney — gathered for a news conference about the effects of the partial shutdown that was organized by newly elected U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat who represents Delaware County and other parts of the region.

Joe Shuker, president of Local 333 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA workers, spoke at the event, referencing the “panic” he’d been feeling as his people labored without pay. “We are trying to feed the employees,” he said.

Shuker asked Philabundance whether it could help. Then the wheels started turning, and the Emergency Market was conceived.

Asked about the Emergency Market, Shuker said on Thursday, “I’m sure our people will go.”

One union member, Philadelphia International Airport security officer Maggie Sabatino, 34, guaranteed she’d be there. In fact, she said, she lives around the corner from the market site.

“This is definitely a blessing,” said Sabatino, the married mother of an autistic 3-year-old son and a year-old daughter. Her husband, who spends much of his time caring for his son, works part-time.

“What savings we had are starting to deplete,” said Sabatino, who has worked without pay for nearly four weeks. “I’ve never been to a food pantry before, but I have children to take care of, and that’s when you put pride aside and get what you need.”