Metro

Food banks to discuss how to respond to federal government shutdown

This March 14, 2018 photo shows canned goods at the campus food pantry of Schenectady County Community College in Schenectady, N.Y. New York is making free food pantries a standard fixture on all its public college campuses. It's part of efforts across the nation to deal with the ripple effect of rising college costs and changing student demographics that make it hard for some students to afford basics such as food. (AP Photo/Mary Esch)
AP/File

The state’s four largest food banks, along with two regional nonprofits, are expected to discuss Monday how to respond if the ongoing partial federal government shutdown dries up money meant to support food stamps, food banks, and other services for low-income residents.

The Department of Agriculture said in a Jan. 8 statement that food service programs, including its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, were fully funded for this month and for February.

But as the shutdown, which began Dec. 22, drags on, local officials are concerned that if funding is not restored, people who rely on SNAP will increasingly turn to food banks, which get food from the federal agency.

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Food banks have enough supplies to meet current needs, said Jean McMurray, executive director of the Worcester County Food Bank, but they are planning ahead in case federal support for food programs is not resumed shortly, she said.

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“It’s a very, very big deal, and that is why we are hoping for a lot of reasons that this government shutdown ends soon,” McMurray said.

John Drew, president of Action for Boston Community Development, which was not expected to be part of the discussion, said the country will be facing a crisis within about six weeks if food programs do not continue to receive federal funding.

“When you cut out a major resource like the food programs in the federal government, you are potentially drying up an awful lot of food that nourishes households and elderly,” Drew said Sunday. “The crisis is that people who are the most vulnerable in our society [are being] sabotaged.”

The group discussion planned for Monday — which would include the Greater Boston Food Bank, Worcester County Food Bank, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, Project Bread, and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute — will address the “needs and challenges” the organizations will face if the shutdown continues, said Catherine Drennan, director for communications and public affairs for the Greater Boston Food Bank.

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“Our number one goal always is to feed people and make sure that people have regular access to food,” Drennan said. “So we will redouble our effort to make sure that happens.”

The Greater Boston Food Bank and the three other large food banks distribute food to meal programs and pantries across the state.

Losing the USDA support would put additional pressure on food banks to try to make up some of the difference with private donations, McMurray said.

Monday’s discussion also will focus on how to help the state’s roughly 770,000 SNAP recipients, whose benefits could be affected by the shutdown.

A SNAP allocation scheduled to be distributed to Massachusetts recipients Sunday is intended to last until March, said Patricia Baker, an advocate for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. The uncertainty of whether the program will be funded after March 1 is likely to put pressure on recipients to stretch their benefits, Baker said.

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The average Massachusetts family who receives SNAP benefits gets about $215 per month through the program, she said.

“These are mostly low-income, vulnerable people who really depend on this program for their most basic needs,” Baker said.

Baker and Andrew Morehouse, the executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, called on the state administration to explore ways of temporarily funding SNAP benefits if the shutdown persists.

“We would not be able to meet the skyrocketing need for food assistance in the event of a government shutdown without government support — plain and simple,” Morehouse said in an e-mail. “That said, we do not want to alarm the public yet. If necessary, we will launch an action alert to our food and fund donors seeking more resources to do our best to feed our neighbors in need.”

A spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services said in an e-mail: “The Baker-Polito Administration made preparations to cope with a federal shutdown previously and the administration believes Washington should put aside political differences and agree on a bipartisan solution that funds the federal government so that important programs, like SNAP, can continue.”

Paul Mina, chief executive and president of the Framingham-based United Way of Tri-County, said he was concerned about the effect a cut in federal funding would have on those who rely on food pantries.

“If the food banks go without funding and are not able to access USDA food and the federal funds that keep hunger networks alive, that would have a quick ripple effect,” Mina said, adding he believed the funding cuts were unlikely to happen.

Mina’s organization receives food from the Greater Boston and Worcester County food banks, and supports pantries in Framingham, Marlborough, and Clinton.

“I’m concerned about any disruption that would impact what we do for people in need,” he said.

Globe correspondent Lucas Phillips contributed to this report. John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.