OLEAN — Rychelle Weseman almost felt guilty coming to the Olean Food Pantry Tuesday morning.
Her family has always considered themselves “food secure” since she and her husband are both gainfully employed — she as a social worker at Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES and her husband as a special investigator at the federal prison in Lewis Run, Pa.
“I know there are people in worse situations that utilize the food pantry and I feel like I’m taking away from them,” she said after loading up her car with items like chicken and potatoes, “but I have to remember that (my husband is) not getting paid and we need help, too, sometimes.”
Federal employees — faced with a new reality of being furloughed or working without pay during the recent 35-day partial federal government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history — were the target of Tuesday’s special food distribution at the Olean Food Pantry.
The Food Bank of WNY scheduled the distribution and four others throughout Western New York before President Donald Trump agreed Friday to temporarily reopen the government, but food pantry officials noted most federal workers still haven’t received their back pay. Plus, workers could find themselves back in the same situation Feb. 15 if a deal on a new government spending bill still hasn’t been reached.
While the Food Bank of WNY delivered about 8,000 pounds of food to the Olean Food Pantry for the distribution — enough for 400 families — only nine families came through Tuesday.
That number was consistent with the other sites like Jamestown, North Collins and Lockport, although the Tonawanda site saw roughly 50 families.
“We don’t expect 400 families to come here, but we want to be prepared for who does come,” said Lauren Picone, public and community relations coordinator for the Food Bank of WNY. “And we want to make sure they can hold themselves over going forward in case the shutdown continues in (a couple) weeks.”
While noting Tuesday was like having “everything set up for a big party and only a couple guests come,” DB Busan of the Olean Food Pantry said the impact was large for the few families that did take advantage.
Each family was supposed to receive two chickens; 10 pounds of potatoes; two packages of spaghetti; six jars of spaghetti sauce; 12 frozen strawberry cups; three pounds of dried cherries; five cans of beans; and four quarts of milk.
“But because we had so much food and not many people, we said, ‘Take what you want.’ So some people took six chickens,” said Busan, who is the Olean Food Pantry warehouse manager. “This allows them to stock their pantry so that if there’s any additional furloughs, they’ll have food and it won’t be as much as a hardship.”
Federal workers who picked up the food — thanks to the help of volunteers — were more than grateful.
One man, who like Weseman’s husband has been working without pay at FCI McKean, called food pantry volunteers “angels.”
“It will definitely help get us by,” said the man of himself, his wife and their three kids. He did not wish to be named. “Even though we should be getting paid here shortly, we may not be getting paid here again. So this helps us restock the cupboards again for when possibly we don’t have paychecks again.”
The man, a counselor at the prison, said it’s been “slim pickings” in his house during the shutdown, adding his family has emptied out the freezer.
He said he’s also been unable to pay his bills during the shutdown, adding that while most bill collectors “have been pretty decent, there’s a couple that are still kind of upset they're not getting money.”
Weseman said the shutdown has also been difficult for her family, which include her two teenage sons.
“We don’t live above our means, but we need (my husband’s) money to survive, so it’s been quite scary,” she said.
The family is already planning as if the shutdown will continue come Feb. 15, she added.
So are food pantries. Picone said the Food Bank of WNY is “ready to do” more special distributions if the shutdown continues. She said future distributions may be held in more centralized locations to help those working without pay more easily collect food during their workdays.
Busan said the Olean Food Pantry has enough food “to set this up at a moment's notice” if the shutdown continues. She said she hopes the federal workers who came through Tuesday will tell their co-workers to not be afraid to come by the pantry.
“The first lady that came, she was very hesitant and you could tell she was very nervous,” Busan said, “but we have such a great group of volunteers and they were just talking to her and laughing with her and by the end she felt very relaxed and comfortable. That’s what we want to do. We know that everybody has tough times and we’re just here to help each other.”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)