The government shutdown is not creating serious issues for those in need of food here in Chattanooga, yet.
That's the message leaders of the Chattanooga Area Food Bank delivered Thursday to social service agency representatives who attended a hastily called meeting to discuss the current and future impact of the shutdown on the food distribution network.
"If you are a federal worker about to miss a second paycheck Friday, or a federal contractor, it's a crisis today," said Food Bank Chief Operating Officer Mark Hilling, citing the government statistic that 40 percent of American households can't pay for a $400 emergency expense. "Many people have not faced food insecurity before. What we are facing is like a hurricane. It's hitting the outer island at some level, but it is about to come on shore. We are hoping it turns away, heads to the North Atlantic and we are all happy."
Hilling said the urgency of the meeting centered around planning for what happens if the shutdown continues beyond the point that other federal assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food stamps, are not available.
"There is no shortage of food, but what happens when we get to March or later?" Hilling said. "We are planning for a larger crisis down the road."
It is not known how many federal employees are impacted by the shutdown in the Food Bank's 20-county service area, officials said. Air traffic controllers, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees and some National Park System employees are working without pay. The Tennessee Valley Authority and the federal court system are not impacted.
Agencies that attended the Food Bank meeting included the United Way, the Chattanooga Housing Authority, the Chattanooga Police Department, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, the City of Chattanooga, the Hamilton County Department of Education, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the Hamilton County Department of Education and two churches.
The United Way of Greater Chattanooga, which operates the 211 assistance hotline, said it had not seen an increase in the number of calls since the shutdown began. The 211 hotline is the primary facilitator for citizens seeking assistance of any kind. Other agencies represented said they also had not seen an increase in requests for assistance. The United Way directs qualified applicants to other agencies that can write food vouchers. Those vouchers, in turn, are used at the Food Bank.
"With everything available, you can get 94 pounds of food," said Sophie Moore, development officer for the Food Bank. The Food Bank managed about 13,000 food vouchers in 2018.
Laura Kilpatrick, director of agency and government relations for the Food Bank, said state statistics show 140,000 people received SNAP payments in the agency's service area and those payments total $20 million a month. She said 44,486 SNAP recipients live in Hamilton County, 14,739 in Bradley County and 37,377 in the Sequatchie Valley region. Numbers were not provided for North Georgia.
The group talked about the possibilities of expanding the food voucher program and the cost of doing so while also creating four working groups around marketing, food availability/distribution, sources of new funding and advocacy.
"There's a growing amount of fear and concern in the community," said Gina Crumbliss, president and chief executive officer of the Food Bank. "People are feeling threatened. We want to create a united front to help the community."
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