More than just a meal: Food and fellowship for federal workers

Folks from the Atlanta Community Food Bank started handing out free food to federal workers affected by the ongoing shutdown at 10 a.m. Friday. An hour later, with a line of cars stretching through a parking lot and down the block, they had to go back to the food bank’s Midtown distribution center for more supplies.

"This is a growing crisis. We are preparing for it as if it is a natural disaster in scale," said Atlanta Community Food Bank CEO Kyle Waide. "It is sobering and it is saddening to see folks who work every day to keep us safe needing assistance in this way. I guarantee you many of these folks never imagined they'd be in this position."

Transportation Security Administrations officers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers are among the federal employees who have been working without pay since the partial federal shutdown began Dec. 22. In response, the food bank brought two tractor trailers filled with 40,000 pounds of vegetables and frozen chicken to a parking lot near the TSA's Atlanta office at the airport.

Some officers were in uniform as they waited in their cars for the food. Some had children or family members with them.

“Look at all these cars,” Waide said. “How many of them have car seats in them? This isn’t just an individual. This is a family, and they are in an unimaginable situation.”

TSA officer Brandon Williams said he came for the food "to provide for our family." He said many TSA officers are "showing up in spite of the government shutdown," but others can't pay their bills and aren't able to work without pay.

Volunteers from Delta Air Lines and the Antioch Baptist Church North helped with distribution. Former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Chris Draft, who also pitched in, said the donations are “not enough when you’re losing a paycheck, but it helps to take the edge off.”

Others in the community have been taking steps to help workers affected by the shutdown. SweetWater Brewery has been offering two free brews, Honeysuckle Gelato is offering a free scoop and Hodgepodge Coffeehouse is ready with free java for furloughed feds (or those working without pay) with government identification. (A complete list of offers is online at the AJC's restaurant blog, ajc.com/blog/atlanta-restaurants).

MORE: Government shutdown could affect Super Bowl ads, travel

Deborah VanTrece, executive chef and owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours, will serve a free lunch on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for affected federal employees and their families. She announced the offer on social media and swiftly booked 241 reservations from people who work for the FBI, TSA, National Park Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development and other federal agencies.

The lunch, originally scheduled from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., has been extended to 4 p.m. VanTrece said she likely will continue to extend the hours of the lunch to accommodate the requests that keep coming.

“Every day, I kept thinking this shutdown was going to end,” said VanTrece, whose restaurant usually is closed on Mondays. “And it just kept going. We talked about, what can we do? And we realized this is something we can do.”

Kursten Berry, manager of the restaurant and VanTrece’s daughter, said diners seem to be eager for more than just a meal.

“People are sharing their stories, their struggles, worrying about paying their bills, their mortgage,” Berry said. “One woman called, and she was crying. I look over to my mom and she’s in tears, too.”

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