Volunteers with Vermont Foodbank get ready to load a car at a distribution center at the University Mall on Saturday. The event was open to federal workers in need.

After the federal government shutdown left close to a million federal employees working without pay for 35 days, a Vermont organization is helping to shoulder their costs.

Vermont Foodbank, the state’s largest hunger relief organization, erected a temporary distribution center at the University Mall parking lot on Saturday, Feb. 2. The Foodbank offered food to any government workers affected by the shutdown. The South Burlington effort was one of four taking place across the state.

Foodbank officials began organizing these distribution centers “when it was clear that people were going to miss the second paycheck,” said John Sayles, Chief Executive Officer of Vermont Foodbank. “We have two employees who have spouses… people with good incomes who are having to borrow money.”

Foodbank employees stood by the roughly 30,000 pounds of food that had trucked in to South Burlington, ready to load the car of anyone in need with as much food as they could fit. The food distribution events, however, were poorly attended, Sayles said.

Advertising such offerings is always a challenge, and many people with normally steady, well-paying jobs sometimes feel uneasy taking advantage of such programs, Sayles said. Whatever food is left over from the distribution centers will be used in the organization’s food pantries.

At the University Mall on Saturday, Michele, an employee at the Department of Homeland Security who declined to give her last name, said while she has been compensated for the time she was furloughed, she is still burdened by her weeks without pay.

“I still feel behind because I had to dip into savings,” she said. “I’m not about to take out a loan on something when I don’t know when I can actually get a paycheck.”

Michele and her children attended a free meal at a restaurant in Burlington and were given free food from a bakery downtown, but this assistance was still not enough to offset the costs incurred while she went without pay, especially medical costs stemming from a recent injury to her daughter.

Because the shutdown was so unexpected, those affected have been scrambling to make do, putting a noticeable strain on the pantries that Vermont Foodbank operates, said Corporate and Community Philanthropy Manager Mica Seely.

“Though some employees have been paid since the government reopened, many are still awaiting a paycheck, making it all the more difficult to keep finances in order,” Seely said. “It’s hard to get back on your feet when you’re two weeks in debt.”

With the possibility of another government shutdown in the coming weeks, Michele said some of her co-workers are taking preemptive measures.

“Many of my co-workers that are in departments that have overtime are working as much as they possibly can, because we do get one more paycheck (before the next potential shutdown),” she said.

Vermont Foodbank is also preparing for another shutdown, Sayles said. He is confident that spreading word of the distribution centers and rolling them out quickly will be much easier next time, he said.

Michele is no stranger to food shelves, though she typically goes to drop off donations rather than accept them, she said.

She instilled this value into her kids when they were young, giving them each $100 every holiday season to buy as much as possible from Costco, all of which they would bring to the food shelf, she said.

“To be the one that actually has to receive the donation, its humbling,” she said.

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