Delivery to food shelves will continue during shutdownby Julie Siple, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Food shelf directors around the state breathed sighs of relief after learning the state government shutdown won't threaten the delivery of tons of food.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services confirmed Friday afternoon that The Emergency Food Assistance Program, previously on the list of non-critical programs to be suspended, will continue despite the shutdown.
"This is great news," said Rob Zeaske, executive director of Second Harvest Heartland food bank. "This was a huge amount of product that was on hold, and we had agencies that were really struggling to know what they were going to do without that quantity and quality of food that was going to come through this program."
Run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federally funded program buys surplus food and ships it to states to help feed low-income Americans. The food goes to food banks, which distribute it to food shelves or meal programs. It accounts for nearly 30 percent of the food distributed by of Minnesota's food shelves each year. Last year, the program delivered 11.8 million pounds of food in Minnesota.
A state employee who manages the orders was laid off with other state workers on Thursday, but was told today to report back to work. That employee is necessary to keep the program up and running.
"We expect to continually evaluate whether a service has reached the critical level as the shutdown continues," said DHS spokesperson Terry Gunderson. "However, given the fact that food is available and in the warehouse, we have called back staff to ensure it gets delivered to those who need it."
Food shelves have come to rely on commodities from the federal program, especially during the summer, when donations tend to fall. The program distributes all sorts of food -- canned fruits and vegetables, meat, peanut butter and dried beans.
"It's highly nutritious, highly valuable product that goes to the food shelves at little or no cost," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions, which manages the distribution of the commodities in Minnesota. "It increases their ability to serve poor people at a time when poor people and people who are recently unemployed are really going to need it."
It was a confusing day at food banks around the state, as they struggled to figure out how the shutdown would affect the program. On Thursday, Hunger Solutions informed food banks that they couldn't deliver the thousands of pounds of federally funded food already in their warehouses, because the state had suspended the program. St. Paul's Second Harvest Heartland food bank found itself with nearly 950,000 pounds of food it couldn't distribute -- everything from chicken to applesauce.
That left operators of food shelves like the Community Emergency Assistance Program in Brooklyn Park worrying about how they would keep their shelves stocked. CEAP serves 1,300 families each month, at three different locations.
Byron Laher, president of CEAP, said it needs to have the federal program's products to serve clients.
"Quite frankly, I don't know how we would cover serving those 1,300 families if we didn't," Laher said.
CEAP receives about 25,000 pounds of food from the program each month. That's a third of the food the service distributes.
Earlier today, Laher called the bank, took CEAP's line of credit down to zero, and moved it into their checking account in case they had to start buying the food that usually comes from the federal program. But even with that extra money, he couldn't afford to buy additional food for very long.
Now, like food shelf directors all over the state, Laher can be sure the shutdown won't interfere with next week's delivery from the federal program.