Contributing Author: Katherine Walla
This week marks the second missed paycheck for United States federal workers as the government shutdown tallies up to 34 days. While the shutdown furloughs 800,000 federal workers, the effects are rippling nation-wide with impacts on national parks and museums, airport security, disaster-response services—and the food system.
As talks continue to stall between Congressional leadership and President Donald Trump, over US$5.7 billion in funding for a border wall, vital government assistance programs are running out of funds and reduced inspection operations increase the risk for food contamination. And the worst is on its way as many partially-running programs near their funding limits in February and March.
Food Tank is calling attention to six ways the government shutdown affects the food system, from federal workers to farmers and food banks.
1. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Inspections Decline
On December 22, 2018, the FDA stopped routine inspections of foods at risk of contamination including fruits, vegetables, and seafood. Food-related outbreaks sicken 48 million, hospitalize 128,000, and kill 3,000 each year in the U.S. On January 10, 2019 the head of the FDA, Scott Gottlieb, estimated the agency missed a few dozen inspections, comprising less than half a percent of all food inspections. Gottlieb called food safety inspectors back to work on January 14, 2019 to resume inspections for high-risk foods—which make up one-third of the FDA’s 8,400 annual inspections.
2. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Meat Plant Inspections Remain Incomplete
On January 23, 2019, new data obtained by Food & Water Watch showed that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) operated with an understaffed workforce before the shutdown: while the USDA conducts meat inspections during the shutdown, understaffing issues become more overt. According to the data, the USDA inadequately inspected a majority of 6,400 meat plants in 2018, thereby increasing the chances that contaminated meat reaches the hands of consumers. FSIS recalled products produced by plants under Perdue Foods and Johnsonville, LLC during the shutdown, noting that improper staffing inhibited their ability to adequately complete routine inspection tasks.
3. Farm Service Agency Temporary Closures Pressure Farmers
On December 28, 2018, the USDA closed Farm Service Agency county offices, cutting farmers off from crucial services in the off-season. During the pause, federal crop payments, tariff relief payments, and loans to purchase necessities such as seed and livestock feed stalled. According to the National Young Farmers Coalition, even a temporary lapse in assistance and trade aid impacts farmers’ abilities to sell their crops and plan for the coming planting season—especially young farmers who depend on USDA services. With the mounting economic pressure on farmers, the USDA reopened about half of the agency offices with on January 17, 2019, and reopened all Farm Service Agency offices with 9,700 unpaid employees on January 22, 2019.
4. USDA Leaves Farmers in the Dark
Farmers also temporarily lost access to crucial government data about crop and livestock prices and yields, making it harder to navigate the global market—especially in the midst of new trade policies that may hurt farmers. The USDA delayed its monthly World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report, which predicts global supply and demand for major crops, leaving farmers in the dark as they begin to plan for the planting season.
5. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Releases Early
For many furloughed families living paycheck-to-paycheck, the shutdown is increasing reliance on SNAP benefits. In response, SNAP released February food stamp benefits early on January 20, 2019—these are not extra benefits, so families are expected to stretch the benefits an extra 10 days or more through the end of February. While a legal provision funds SNAP through February, no funds exist for March and beyond to feed nearly 39 million low-income Americans.
6. Food Banks Feel A New Surge
Furloughed and contract workers turn to food banks and pantries to make up for stretched SNAP benefits. On top of this new influx of food bank customers, the shutdown restricts funds that help food banks distribute and store food locally. Programs including The Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program—which provide food directly to food banks and to communities such as low-income seniors—will distribute through March, but will receive no new funds; the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations will deliver food to tribal communities through February, but will experience lapses in program reimbursements. In response, organizations including José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen are opening up food bank pop-ups in cities across the U.S.
To support initiatives feeding federal workers, you can donate to organizations like World Central Kitchen, which is donating free meals, or Capital Area Food Bank, which is setting up free pop-up markets for employees in the D.C. area. To support a general relief fund for furloughed workers, you can donate to a fundraiser started by Deepak Chopra and GoFundMe that directs funds to nonprofits including World Central Kitchen, the National Diaper Bank Network, Feeding America, and the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund.