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As shutdown drags on, federal workers flock to food pantries

Impact of government shutdown grows

Federal workers -- who haven't seen paychecks since before the government closed on Dec. 22 -- are lining up at food pantries across the U.S.

The Capital Area Food Bank, which operates in the Washington, D.C., area, hosted five pop-up food pantry locations after federal workers -- who missed their paychecks for the first time last Friday -- flooded the organization's "Hunger Lifeline" with calls for help, according to President and CEO Radha Muthiah.

Hotline representatives direct callers to the food pantries closest to their homes, and help make them aware of supplementary nutrition alternatives.

"We have seen an uptick in the number of calls from individuals who weren't traditionally clients to better understand the emergency food assistance network in our area should the shutdown persist," Muthiah told CBS MoneyWatch. "Typically, SNAP [food stamps] recipients are the ones that come to food pantries, but what we did this weekend was targeted to federal workers and contractors who typically earn more income but had missed paychecks."

Nearly 2,500 federal employees from the Department of Agriculture, Homeland Security, the State Department, the White House and other agencies lined up across the five D.C.-area pantry locations last weekend.

"There were so many people in need of additional support and assistance. Many live paycheck to paycheck, so the absence of one paycheck, particularly in the winter when heating bills are higher, has a snowball effect," Muthiah said.

The food bank typically serves about 3 million meals during the month of January. It estimates it will provide an additional 300,000 to 600,000 meals this month, which could cost it roughly $300,000 more than budgeted, as a direct result of the government shutdown.

"We are very clear that this additional sourcing of food is to address this new target audience of furloughed and government workers. It is separate and apart from what we would be providing to our usual network," Muthiah said.

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Workers were grateful for the extra assistance but fearful that it might not last as long as they need it to, she said. "The most common question we heard was, 'Can we count on you to be here next weekend?'" Muthiah confirmed that the food bank is "committed to being here until the shutdown is lifted and until people get their next paycheck."

The shutdown is having an impact on workers well beyond Washington, D.C. The organization Feeding America says its network of 200 food banks across the country are seeing an increase in the number of people seeking assistance since the shutdown. 

In Stock Island, Florida, near the site of a major Coast Guard base, more than a dozen U.S. Coast Guard families visited the SOS Food Pantry for the first time Monday, according to the pantry's executive director, Tom Callahan.

He said he saw 70 more people -- all of them members of Coast Guard families -- than the usual 130 the pantry serves daily on Monday alone.

"It's been amazing what we have seen already and it's scary considering they have only missed one paycheck," Callahan said.

The pantry is also giving families that qualify $30 gift cards to Publix grocery stores. "That way they can buy diapers and things that we don't stock," Callahan added.

Local food banks are stretched thin, he said, meaning it won't be long before SOS runs out of supplies.

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"This is a very expensive place to live. People are literally living paycheck to paycheck. They can't afford for this to drag out. The government has to figure out somehow and compromise or it's going to get really ugly really quick. There is no way we can sustain this," Callahan said.

Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, says this food bind is illustrative of "how many Americans are only one missed paycheck away from hunger."

His organization is helping families who have never sought this type of assistance navigate the alternatives available to them. He said the shutdown could become an "epic calamity" for hungry Americans should it last even another week.

"For most people pantries are a last resort. This is something that never should happen in a rational, reasonable world," he said. "But as long as this is happening we will make sure federal employees and contractors who are serving us don't go hungry."