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Laguna Food Pantry offers help to unpaid federal employees during government shutdown

Laguna Food Pantry offers help to unpaid federal employees during government shutdown
Cynthia Carson, center, chairwoman of operations for the Laguna Food Pantry board of directors, and volunteer Shikira Paul, right, separate bunches of romaine lettuce at the pantry on Tuesday. (Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

As hundreds of thousands of federal employees went without a paycheck Friday, the Laguna Food Pantry began a social media campaign inviting workers and families affected by the partial government shutdown to shop at the pantry.

“It made so much sense,” said the nonprofit’s executive director, Anne Belyea. “Here we are and we’re serving a need and why not reach out to others that weren’t knowledgeable about us?”

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Fresh produce, meat and packaged foods are available for free every weekday morning at the pantry on Laguna Canyon Road, Belyea said. Of the 96 people who visited Monday — the daily average is 80 to 100 — Belyea counted two unfamiliar faces who were there as a result of the shutdown. A visit Tuesday revealed no shoppers identified as federal workers.

The pantry is open to everyone, but “just being that it’s such a long shutdown, I don’t see the end in sight. And that’s concerning for everyone,” Belyea said.

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The partial government shutdown, which began Dec. 22 and on Saturday became the longest in history, reached its 24th day Tuesday. It resulted from a dispute between the White House and congressional Democrats over funding a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The shutdown affects 800,000 federal employees — 41,478 of whom are Californians, according to Governing magazine. Affected departments include the National Park Service, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Many employees who are considered essential, such as Transportation Security Administration and border agents, continue to work without pay.

The idea to use Facebook and Instagram to invite people affected by the shutdown came from the pantry’s publicist and marketing coordinator, Mary Castillo.

“Obviously their bills are continuing,” Castillo said. “If I was in the position that a lot of other people are finding themselves in, that would be frightening. And it would be very humbling and emotional to go to a place where people welcome you and say, ‘Yeah, take a cake, take some milk, here are some eggs, here’s some rice.’ ”

Chris Littleton, a volunteer at the pantry, was in charge of the front desk Monday when the shoppers who said they were affected by the shutdown visited. She said a woman whose husband had been furloughed had two children and another on the way.

“She was sort of embarrassed because this is the first time she’d been to a food pantry,” Littleton said. “And I said, ‘It’s OK, we all need to eat.’ ”

Laguna Beach resident Denny Freidenrich created a GoFundMe campaign Dec. 30 to support federal employees affected by the shutdown. The campaign had raised $650 as of Tuesday afternoon.

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