A Discreet Effect Of The Government Shutdown: Food

Jan 17, 2019

Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

It has been nearly four weeks since the partial government shutdown began. It has blocked pay and benefits for federal workers and those who depend on federal programs.

One of the many disruptive - but more discreet - effects of the shutdown for North Carolinians has to do with where some people will get their next meal.

On its face, the shutdown is simple. There is no money to pay 800,000 federal employees to do their jobs. Some are doing them anyway.

But the shutdown has ripple effects that can be easy to miss. One of them is food. And it starts at the root of the supply chain.

"Our food does not come from a grocery store. It starts on a farm somewhere," said David Smith, deputy commissioner of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.

Smith is not worried about stores running out of food, but with federal offices being closed or limited in their services, farmers haven't been getting the information they need to apply for federal loans or crop assistance. Smith says they need some assurances heading into the spring.

"Farmers have to make decisions about plantings, what their intentions are, and buying seed, chemical and fertilizer. All of those things are rapidly coming into focus now," he said.

Next, there are federal food programs. Gideon Adams is an executive manager at the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. He told WUNC earlier this month the direct food deliveries they get from the USDA are crucial.

"Obviously if funding runs out for those, it would be a huge hit for us in terms of our ability to provide food to the clients," Adams said. "And likewise if the funding runs out for SNAP, our clients are going to need our services more than ever."

The state Department of Health and Human Services is distributing February's food stamp - or SNAP - benefits early. Low-income families who receive food stamps will get payments this weekend. But they will not get anything during the month of February, and they've been told to plan accordingly.

Finally, the anxiety that comes with food insecurity can trickle down to children in low-income families. A team of researchers at Duke University found that student test scores rose after parents got a SNAP payment, and dipped at the end of the month, when families often run out of resources.

"It's not just confined to families' food access or what they're eating," said Duke public policy professor Anna Gassman-Pines in a 2018 interview. "What families eat and how worried parents are about whether they have enough to eat actually then affects these other outcomes for kids that are very important."

There are still no signs of an end to the federal government shutdown.