Federal workers gathered quietly in the semi-darkness beneath I-95 in South Philadelphia on Wednesday morning, solemnly collecting charity carrots, apples, and other items during an emergency food distribution hastened by the month-long partial government shutdown.
Accustomed to seeing one another dressed up and in warm, well-lighted offices, many of the 253 people bundled in winter gear nodded unsmilingly at colleagues in a kind of bewildered embarrassment during the two-hour disbursal sponsored by Philabundance, Share Food Program, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and Campbell Soup Co.
“I’m downright humiliated,” said Gregory McGeorge, 53, an IRS worker from Logan, exhaling cauliflower-size clouds of breath vapor in the sunless cold. “We want to work, but we’re pawns in a fight in Washington. I’m physically able to do my job. But they won’t let me."
Philabundance normally distributes food every Friday at the site, at Front and Tasker Streets. This so-called Emergency Market marked the first time in the hunger-relief agency’s 35-year history that it has enacted a disaster plan to feed people in Philadelphia. The site will be open to all 45,000 federal workers in the region between 10 and 11 a.m. every Wednesday until just after the shutdown is ended.
As cars rumbled on the highway overhead, a Philabundance sound system blasted music by Stevie Wonder and other artists, “to try to make it festive and help people forget what they’re there for,” said Stef Arck-Baynes, director of communications for Philabundance.
Despite that kindness, joviality seemed to be in short supply among the group, many of whom believed that the government had broken a sacred American bargain: Work hard and you’ll be insulated from hard times like this.
The distribution was a stark reminder for the federal workers about how even in a huge country, national politics can play out on local kitchen tables.
“It was a difficult decision to come here, but I had to put pride aside to help my kids,” said Vladymir Valentin, 42, an IT worker in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He traveled from Upper Darby with his 3-month-old daughter, Ava Brooklyn, to get food for his wife and five other children.
Valentin, a Navy veteran, said his wife, Stephanie, had to cut her maternity leave short and return to her accounting job after the partial shutdown that began on Dec. 22 began to drag on: “She’s just been crying all the time.”
Valentin’s co-worker Diane Caimi, 49, of Rhawnhurst, said she was “grateful for this outreach,” but felt like a “hostage” and a “bargaining chip,” unable to wrangle interim work because potential employers worry that she’d soon return to her job.
That, said Caimi, who is married and has two teenage children, is something she’d very much like to see, adding, “I’ve worked for 30 years and never thought I’d be in this predicament."
The fact is that more than 700,000 people in the Philadelphia area face the agony of hunger every day, Arck-Baynes said.
Samantha Mogil, manager of government and community affairs for Share, which supplies food to 500 pantries in the city, added, “It’s important to remember that there are people who are hungry all the time.
"I feel sad for these federal workers. They’ve never been to a distribution like this before. But many other people, lots of them with jobs, deal with hunger 365 days a year.”