31 January 2019
31 January 2019

Photo by Jim Stevenson

You can tell the story of the longest government shutdown in American history by talking about food.

Yes. Food.

These are the lingering images of the shutdown:

Photo by Jim Stevenson

The long lines leading into a make-shift cafe a few blocks from the White House set up by a local chef to provide free hot meals to government workers who weren’t getting paid.

And the smiles on the faces of volunteer greeters at a DC subway stop on the first morning rush hour after the shutdown ended as they passed out coffee and pastries to commuters near a sign that read “Welcome back… we miss you.”

800,000 government employees were directly affected by the shutdown. An estimated 380,000 were furloughed and sent home. Another 420,000 classified as “essential” worked throughout the shutdown without pay. They included airport security screeners, members of the Coast Guard, and even the president’s own security detail.

Nine of the 15 federal departments were technically closed — from Agriculture to Transportation. And all because of a political dispute that, for the most part, had nothing to do with their mission.

In December, President Trump — after saying he would sign legislation required to fund these agencies for the rest of the fiscal year (which for some reason begins on October 1 for the US government) — abruptly changed course. He said he would only approve the funding if Congress gave him more than five billion dollars for construction of a wall on our southern border.

Yes, this is the same wall he once swore Mexico would pay for. Now he wants US taxpayers to pick up the tab.

Some say it is all part of his autocratic plan to “rule by fear” — to get everyone hyped up about the threat posed by illegal immigration so that he can rally Americans behind the cause and, thus, behind him.

But this time, his plan hit a “wall”of its own. The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives said “No!” Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the notion of a physical barrier “immoral” and stressed there are better ways to address border security, like incorporating new and better technology and increasing the number of immigration courts.

She refused to back down, saying the White House was, in effect, holding the government hostage. The president got angrier and angrier and went on frequent Twitter rants. Meanwhile, federal workers lined up for food.

Now, it is worth noting here that since federal agencies are headquartered in Washington, there are a fair number of government employees in DC who are in management positions, are well paid, and have enough money in reserve to tide them over through a shutdown.

Photo by Jim Stevenson

Many federal workers could weather the storm… many could not.

Some of these government employees are just starting out… some have clerical positions… and many others work for outside companies that have government contracts, such as the workers who clean federal buildings and staff their cafeterias. They live paycheck to paycheck and they were hit hard.

Yes, there was the promise of back pay for affected government employees, but for those at the lower rungs on the pay scale,  going more than a month with no income was stressful at best… dangerous at worst.

The president made a national address during the shutdown to talk about border security and the need for a wall — a rehash, really, of his old campaign speeches with some inaccurate statistics thrown in. He never mentioned the anxieties facing federal workers who were worried about meeting medical bills or finding the money for rent.

His billionaire Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, was asked about the impact of the shutdown and his response was, well, things aren’t that bad and all those furloughed workers should just take out bank loans until they get paid.

To struggling feds, that was a slap in the face.

Which is where Chef Jose Andres came into the picture — offering a helping hand instead of a clenched fist.

The local restauranteur is the brains behind a non-profit called World Central Kitchen which, in the past, has set up feeding centers in areas hard hit by natural disasters. When the White House ignored the plight of the affected federal workers, Andres and WCK stepped in.

With a seemingly endless supply of volunteers, and backing from local businesses, World Central Kitchen offered meals to thousands of federal workers every day during the shutdown. WCK also provided bags of produce for families, and even diapers for those whose finances were strapped so thin they needed help getting necessities for their kids.

And when it all ended and the president agreed after 35-days to the Democrat’s demand to reopen the government and then negotiate border security, the meals kept on coming.

Chef Jose said WCK would continue to nourish the federal community — body and soul —  until government workers got their promised backpay.

He did what President Trump could not bring himself to do. He offered moral support and empathy.

And if the government shuts down again, the feeding center will reopen. That’s a promise.

It is hard to believe that in this day and age it is even necessary, that our government cannot find a way to really appreciate our civil servants and to protect them from the political whims of a volatile president.

Already, Trump is talking about the possibility of  closing down the government again in mid-February. The legislation he signed on January 25th to end the 35 day shutdown technically provides only a three-week reprieve while Congressional negotiators try to reach an agreement on border security.

If they fail or President Trump finds their proposed solution unacceptable — which he says is highly likely — he swears he will take action.   Either government offices will close once again, or he will declare a national emergency on the border and divert money to build his wall without approval from Congress.

Anyway you look at it, it’s a mess.

Federal employees have become the pawns in a political dispute over immigration.

And how fitting that the kind-hearted person who has come to their rescue is a Spanish-born chef who is an American by choice.

Chef Jose is showing us all what real leadership is about.

Photo by Jim Stevenson



Paula Wolfson

Paula Wolfson is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered three presidents and six presidential campaigns. She was the White House bureau chief for the Voice of America before switching to commercial radio, where she reported on science and health care policy, Recently she returned to her first love and is writing once again on American politics and foreign policy for

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