UWCHAN — Officials at the Chester County Food Bank here greeted new U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th, of Easttown, warmly Tuesday morning, even though the reason for her visit could not have been more uncomfortable for them.
The food bank, whose mission is to end hunger as best it can in the county, is preparing for what could be a troublesome impact on its mission as the continuing federal government shutdown takes a toll on its food supplies, as well as playing havoc with a number of low- and moderate-income residents who need food assistance programs and need help putting dinner on the table.
“I am very concerned about the prospects we are facing if this shutdown lasts one more day, one more week, or even one more month,” Houlahan told the Daily Local News in an email following her visit at the food bank’s offices and headquarters, after she had returned to the nation’s capital for work in the House of Representatives.
“The Chester County Food Bank has done a great job keeping their operation running this month, but I have run businesses and I know that it isn’t sustainable to operate with the budget hole they face from the shutdown,” Houlahan wrote.
The food bank, its headquarters located in the Eagleview corporate area, is the central distribution hub for food made available through federal programs including The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), supplies of which will begin to dry up should the shutdown caused by a rift between Democrats and the White House over President Donald Trump’s demand for a border wall continue into February or March.
The president was quoted as saying last week that he was prepared to have the shutdown last “months, or even years,” if he does not receive a beginning of funding for the wall between the U.S. and Mexican border.
But the county food bank, which distributes to area food cupboards throughout the country, also anticipates that those who receive food through programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, and free or reduced costs school lunches, could turn to its resources to make up for those lost avenues away from hunger, should the shutdown continue.
“We are in real trouble if SNAP runs out,” food bank Advocacy Coordinator Ricky Eller told Houlahan during a quick briefing session in the agency’s boardroom before a tour of its facilities in the morning.
Houlahan asked only a few questions during her session with the staff and volunteers at the food bank, but appeared concerned about the level of hunger in general in the county, and among children in particular. At one point, she remembered her own experience with the school lunch program at Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia, where she worked as an educator.
She said 98 percent of the students there qualified for the food program, compared with level in the teens at county school districts. But those who receive the reduced cost lunches need them just as badly here amidst the county’s affluence, Eller noted.
In the county, the food bank officials said, about one in 10 residents suffers from some level of food insecurity. The food bank distributes food to cupboards that serve between 35,000 to 50,000 residents a quarter. About 18,000 children take advantage of the school hunger programs.
The SNAP payments to residents will run out at the end of the month because Congress has been unable to pass a funding bill for the Department of Agriculture because of Trump’s insistence on border security funding, including money for a wall or other barrier. It has put 800,000 federal employees out of work without paychecks, a fact that Larry Welsch, the food bank’s director, said was a familiar one for his agency.
In past shutdowns, county residents who were furloughed for lengthy periods of time — such as those who work at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Coatesville or who work at federal agencies in nearby Maryland — had to turn to their local food cupboards for assistance. They were given food packages through the TEFAP program, packages that have been slow to come to the food bank recently.
Phoebe Kitson-Davis, the food bank’s director of agency and community partnerships, took Houlahan to a spot in the agency’s warehouse where she showed her a single section of TEFAP boxes. Normally, she said, those boxes would have filled several more shelves.
Th food bank is always prepared for emergencies like the shutdown that affect residents. But those emergency supplies can only last so long before they too are gone, like SNAP assistance, Kitson-Davis said.
The briefing Tuesday was the first time those at the food bank had met Houlahan, who won a historic election for Congress in 2018. Some posed for photos with the new legislator, saying how excited they were to have voted for her. She left after about 45 minutes to get to Washington, D.C. for votes in the evening.
Later, she decried the obstacles she has faced in taking office at a time when the government is in shutdown mode.
“Our community has serious issues that they are looking for us to solve,” the new congresswoman said. “We need to expand access to affordable and quality health care, bring good paying jobs with good benefits to our community, tackle climate change, and take commonsense steps to reduce gun violence, among other important issues. I ran on those issues and the American people are looking for solutions to those problems.
“First though, we must get our government open and working again,” she said.