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'It's not your fault': Some furloughed by shutdown turn to charities for food

By Dan Merica, CNN
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Mon October 14, 2013
  • Some furloughed workers say they can't feed their families without help
  • "These folks (furloughed employees) don't know how to be poor," said head of one food pantry
  • "It's a damn shame," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, told CNN.

Calvert County, Maryland (CNN) -- Getting out of her car, the wife of a furloughed government worker walked toward a small building full of free food.

She approached the door with her head down. An attendant asked for her name, she looked up and began to sob.

"It's ok, it's not your fault," the volunteer said as she wrapped her arms around the crying woman.

Chesapeake Cares Food Pantry, located 30 miles from the political impasse in Washington that resulted in the shutdown, put together a food giveaway tailored to affected workers not at their jobs and not being paid.

Roughly 200 people received bags of frozen meat, canned vegetables and other staples on Monday morning.

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"These folks (furloughed government employees) don't know how to be poor," said Rev. Robert Hahn, the head End Hunger in Calvert County, a consortium of food pantries in the area. "These folks are fish out of water and they feel humiliated, like they have lost their dignity."

This is the second offering Hahn's group has made to federal employees. Last week, the group passed out 2,700 pounds of food to 71 different families. And if the government shutdown continues, Hahn said he anticipates his group will continue this sort of offering.

The shutdown that began on October 1 has impacted hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors in the Washington region, including people at the epicenter of the partisan shutdown showdown in Congress.

Washington-area food banks have responded to an unexpected need this fall created by the shutdown, their efforts already tested by a continued, uneven economic recovery and tough job market.

Men and women were on both sides of the help on Monday in Calvert County -- those receiving and those distributing food.

Those helping out included one person who works for the Department of Justice and another employed by the Navy.

CNN agreed not to identify furloughed workers receiving food due to a combination of their embarrassment and not wanting to hurt their employer.

"Getting paid helps, but it doesn't help right now," said one, who acknowledged she'll probably get paid once the shutdown ends.

Still, the woman said she is struggling to put food on the table.

Some told CNN they were living paycheck to paycheck.

"The biggest thing (people are feeling) is fear," said Hahn. "Even a lot of federal employees who know that they're going to get their checks made up, they're still going to be shy" if they miss a couple of pay periods.

President Barack Obama visited a food pantry in downtown Washington on Monday where he helped make peanut butter sandwiches.

He told reporters that he stopped by Martha's Table because many of volunteers there had been furloughed.

"They're here contributing and giving back to the community and I think that shows the kind of spirit that we have among all kinds of federal workers all across the country, people who dedicate their lives to public service," Obama said.

Hahn, who has worked for Chesapeake Church for 20 years, said many of the men and women he saw collect food on Monday were new faces who had never sought their help in the past.

While a study by Main Street showed that Calvert County was the 13th wealthiest county in the United States in 2012, Hahn said that ranking doesn't show how many "working poor" live in the area.

"It's a damn shame," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley told CNN. "It's no fault of their own, but they find themselves now in a position of, of having to come here for help."

O'Malley, who attended the event, said he would recommend that "those who for ideological reasons feel shutting down our government is a good idea" should "come here and see the families that are showing up for help to feed their families for the first time in their lives."

As volunteers passed out food, there was obvious frustration with political leaders in Washington.

Those in line lamented the fact they were expected to just go without pay.

Hahn said he had more important things to do than worry about how things will shake out on Capitol Hill.

"I would say this to the president and Congress, your job is to solve problems, not to create problems," Hahn said. "We are here solving problems."

CNN's Jim Acosta contributed to this report.

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