Federal government shutdown pinches La. food banks

At the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry, workers are writing their last checks to food banks across Louisiana until the federal government shutdown ends.

Mack Williams, the agency’s food distribution program administrator, delivered the news Friday to food bank officials through an otherwise routine email about the close of the federal budget year.

Each year, however much money remains unspent at the end of September is divvied up among food banks and given to them as a bonus payment. This year, those checks might have to last awhile.

Until the federal government shutdown ends, Williams cannot process reimbursement requests in the federal budget year that started Oct. 1 for food banks’ administrative expenses, such as rent, salaries and the gallons of diesel needed to transport commodities. A little more than $1 million is at stake — or about 5 percent of food banks’ expenses.

“They’re going to be able to pay their people … but every little bit helps,” Williams said.

Natalie A. Jayroe, president and CEO at Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana, said what might seem like a small cut actually is a big cut to an organization like hers, which serves people in 23 parishes. She said the money for administrative expenses helps defray the cost of trucking food to communities.

“It’s a substantial impact and it’s one of those unintended consequences,” Jayroe said.

The federal government is at a partial standstill because of a budget battle on Capitol Hill. National parks are closed. Military death benefits were temporarily suspended. Thousands of federal workers are on furlough.

President Barack Obama met with Republicans this week without reaching a resolution. More talks are expected.

In Louisiana, the impasse’s immediate impact is on food banks’ administrative costs. If the shutdown extends past October, it could result in empty bellies.

More than 60 percent of public schoolchildren in Louisiana receive free or reduced lunches through a federal subsidy program. Barry Landry, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said funding is sufficient to carry Louisiana through the end of the month.

All public schoolchildren in Louisiana — regardless of whether they pay the full price for their lunch — depend on the federal government in some fashion for their mid-day meals unless they brown bag it.

State Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain is responsible for six warehouses scattered across the state that store commodities destined for children’s cafeteria trays. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the bank that pays the tab.

In a row of warehouses behind Strain’s Florida Boulevard office is less than two-and-a-half months worth of food. Orders for more food are in the computer system through December. Because the orders are placed with private contractors, they should be fulfilled.

Strain said the outlook still is not good in the short term for the state’s food supply. He said a farm bill has not been passed and now the federal government is shut down.

The result:

Loans for crop production cannot be made.

Farmers cannot borrow equipment.

Pesticides are sitting at docks.

Less inspectors are in the field.

“It is putting our food supply at risk,” he said.