Grocers across the country are stepping in to help furloughed workers where they can while dealing with their own struggles as the partial government shutdown continues to wear on.
The shutdown has complicated Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, with February funds being credited early as part of a solution from the USDA and no word on what will happen for March.
In one case, a St. Louis Save-A-Lot may need to temporarily close its doors due to most of its SNAP customers, which make up 73% of its revenue, having already spent their February benefits, the Belleville News-Democrat reported.
Franchise owner Robert Bonner told the News-Democrat that if March’s benefits are not credited due to the shutdown, his business will be in trouble.
“I would have to shut my doors until our government, both Democrat and Republican, steps up and supports our constitution,” Bonner said.
The shutdown is also rendering some grocers unable to accept SNAP benefits at all, such as Cincinnati-based Clifton Markets, which has not been able to apply for a license to accept EBT (electronic benefits transfer) payments that was up for renewal, WCPO news reported.
"There have been a few incidents where people missed the sign and have done all of their shopping and then come time to pay, they find out that we weren't taking it," store manager Gurmukh Singh told the news outlet.
The same is true at a York County, Pa., D&K Surplus Grocery, which changed ownership last month and needed to reapply for its license, Fox 43 reported. The application was put on hold as the shutdown commenced and the 600 SNAP customers that shop at its store each week have been unable to use their benefits.
On the other hand, many grocers are stepping up to help federal workers in their communities that have gone weeks without pay.
In Wisconsin, Metcalfe’s is providing a 20% discount on groceries to all federal workers who show government identification at checkout, the same discount that the retailer gives to its employees. The initiative will continue through the end of the month or until the government shutdown ceases.
Fourth-generation grocer and co-owner Tim Metcalfe said he believes that helping those in need should be the responsibility of all community members, including businesses like his.
“Our company works with a ‘why’ in mind for everything we do and that is: to connect and enrich people, our community and beyond,” Metcalfe said.
On the West Coast, New Seasons Market and New Leaf Community Markets are offering a 15% discount to federal workers at locations in Oregon, Washington and California, which company officials said was inspired by discussions among staff and “immediately embraced by the organization.”
“New Seasons Market and New Leaf Community Markets are passionate about feeding and nourishing our communities,” said Mark Law, COO of New Seasons Market and New Leaf Community Markets. “While we wait for an end to the partial government shutdown, we’d like to make that a little easier for affected federal employees and contractors.”
Safeway is working to help furloughed shoppers in its Baltimore community by donating dog and cat food to the Baltimore Humane Society.
The retailer donated $10,000 worth of its private label pet food, providing the shelter with supply aimed to meet the needs of affected pet owners.
Food City in El Paso, Texas, is offering furloughed shoppers five food items from a specified list for $5, reported CBS 4 News.
With about 800,000 federal employees affected by the lingering partial government shutdown, grocery industry trading partners are stepping up to offer displaced workers assistance to help feed their families. Other industry groups are also responding to assure consumers of the safety of their products, which are inspected on-site by regulatory agencies whose workers are also affected.
Retailers can also expect an uptick in SNAP shoppers this weekend following the USDA’s plan to release benefits early should the shutdown continue. Read on for a closer look at the impacts of the shutdown on the retail food industry.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, at the direction of President Trump, outlined a plan that will allow SNAP recipients to receive their full February benefits if the government shutdown continues. The USDA is now working with states to issue February benefits earlier than usual through a provision of the recently expired Continuing Resolution. States will have until Jan. 20 to request the early issuance and the benefits may appear in SNAP accounts as early as that time.
Perdue said the resolution “works and is legally sound,” adding that the USDA assures states and SNAP recipients that February benefits will be provided.
With a plan in place to provide early benefits, retailers should anticipate a potential uptick in SNAP shoppers and be ready to clear up confusion about why the benefits are appearing in SNAP accounts so early.
"We don't know of any time this has ever happened," Hannah Walker, senior director of technology and nutrition policy for the Food Marketing Institute, told Politico.
Kraft has cooked up a generous plan to help affected workers during the government shutdown with a pop-up grocery store in Washington, D.C., where the federal government is the region’s largest employer. Dubbed “Kraft Now Pay Later,” the CPG giant is offering affected workers an opportunity to stock up on pantry staples such as Kraft Mac & Cheese, Kraft Natural Cheese, Kraft Singles, Kraft Salad Dressings, Kraft Mayo and Kraft BBQ sauce. In return, Kraft is requesting those who can pay it forward to make a donation to their charity of choice or a person in need after they return to work, if possible.
Kraft’s pop-up store will be open Jan. 16-20 near Union Market, at 1287 4th St. N.E. Current federal government workers will need to show their government ID and will be able to select for their homes a bag full of Kraft products for their families. “During the government shutdown, parents should not have to worry about putting dinner on the table because they aren’t receiving a paycheck,” said Sergio Eleuterio, Kraft’s head of marketing, in a statement. “Kraft stands for families and we want to support the families who have built our brands. This store is one way we can help those affected get the grocery staples they need.”
Several D.C.-area Giant Food Stores will hand over their parking lot space to the Capital Area Food Bank’s pop-up markets that provide free food to anyone with a federal ID or federal contractor ID, reported local news outlet WTOP. The markets will appear from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturdays until the government shutdown is over.
The locations were chosen based on the highest concentrations of federal workers in the area, and Radha Muthiah, president and CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank, told WTOP that it will serve workers who “typically would have an income level that’s high enough if you will that they don’t qualify for food stamps, but given that they’ve missed a paycheck ...”
With heightened consumer awareness of food safety as the shutdown lingers, Western U.S. leafy greens producers offered consumers assurance that efforts to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks on their farms remains fully intact. “Government foods safety audits of leafy greens fields in the Southern desert areas of California and Yuma, Ariz., are continuing as usual,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, in a statement. “These efforts are not impacted by the current government shutdown, and the leafy greens community continues to work diligently to protect public health.” They have significantly stepped up efforts to improve leafy greens safety following two recent outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce, he said.
California and Arizona leafy greens growers, which produce more than 90% of leafy greens sold in most U.S. grocery stores, are subject to a stringent food safety protocols outlined in the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, or LGMA, and which are then inspected by government auditors to ensure the practices are being followed.
“The audits are conducted by government officials employed by the state departments of agriculture in California and Arizona who are not associated with the current federal government shutdown,” Horsfall said. “This means that government audits are regularly taking place in leafy greens fields to verify farmers are following all 150 food safety checkpoints that are part of each LGMA audit. Each member of the LGMA is audited an average of five times during the year.”
Twenty Whole Foods Markets stores in the Washington, D.C., market on Jan. 15 provided a complimentary spaghetti dinner for furloughed workers.