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Reduced to ‘food stamps and food pantries,’ Coast Guard families rally amid government shutdown

Active-duty Coast Guard, Reservists and their families celebrate the 224th birthday of the service, Aug. 4, 2014, at U.S.C.G. Sector Charleston, S.C. The celebration had a cook-out, games and raffle prizes. (Senior Airman George Goslin/U.S. Air Force )
January 22, 2019

For Krystal Sheltry, the paycheck her family relies on didn’t arrive Tuesday.

That’s when the partial federal government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history, really hit home for Sheltry and her husband, who serves in the Coast Guard and is required to keep working even though he is not being paid.

“Today you will not be receiving your regularly scheduled mid-month paycheck,” Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the Coast Guard, said in a statement to all personnel. “To the best of my knowledge, this marks the first time in our nation’s history that servicemembers in a U.S. Armed Force have not been paid during a lapse in government appropriations.”

Saturday marked the 29th day of the shutdown, with no end in sight as President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats continue to argue over Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to fund a wall along the border with Mexico.

But Sheltry wasn’t about to wait for a solution in Washington to do something to help out her and other affected families.

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On Thursday and Friday, about 80 families were fed for free, thanks to donations to an emergency food pantry Sheltry and other Coast Guard spouses opened up.

That pantry — which also collects other essential goods besides food — is operating out of First Baptist Church, 8828 Belle Chasse Highway, which Sheltry said opened up its doors after she wasn’t able to find a long-term option at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, also in Belle Chasse.

She hopes to keep the pantry going as long as the government remains shut down, with the exception of weekends, when the church needs the space.

She said it’s better than having the pantry in a garage — her first plan after she learned it wasn’t possible to have it on the base.

Sheltry said the idea of accepting food from others is difficult for Coast Guard members because they have so much pride.

A fellow volunteer at the food bank held back tears Saturday when asked how the shutdown has affected her family, recalling that when she went to buy groceries last week, her son asked, “Mom, can we buy that?” — referring to a bag of chicken nuggets. “It’s like $6.”

“And it broke my heart, and I said to him, ‘Hey, buddy, you don’t worry about that,’ ” said the volunteer, a fellow Coast Guard spouse. She asked that her name be withheld, in part citing a negative reaction by some posters on social media to government workers in need.

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All government workers are welcome to take from the food pantry, Sheltry said, because the shutdown affects many more people in Louisiana than just the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard is the only branch of the U.S. military whose personnel aren’t being paid, after funding from the Department of Homeland Security ran out. Other branches of the military are funded through the Department of Defense, which has been funded by Congress.

South Louisiana isn’t the only place that’s taken to the food pantry idea. New London, Connecticut — the home of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy — is also using one, with many businesses in town rallying to the cause.

The volunteer in Belle Chasse said the reaction she initially saw in New Orleans was much different.

“I was so discouraged, so discouraged,” she said of the community’s initial tepid response, though she noted that might be understandable because of a lack of knowledge of how the Coast Guard is funded.

She’s seen more support in recent days, though.

Second Harvest Food Bank has started taking donations for the pantry. A spokesman for the food bank said a large supply of diapers should also be shipped there Monday.

Sheltry said she worries there are servicemembers in need who just won’t accept help from the pantry because of their sense of pride.

“We want people to come in. We hope that they’re not too scared to come in, too nervous, too embarrassed,” she said.

But if someone doesn’t want to pick out food in person, there is the option to text and pick up a supply, the volunteer said. Rides are available for people who don’t have transportation.

And while the food pantry is helping for now, the volunteer said it’s ridiculous things have gotten to this point. Her daughter won’t have a party for her 13th birthday Sunday, the volunteer said, because the family just can’t afford it.

“It’s not about politics. It’s not about the wall,” the volunteer said. “It’s about our dignity. It’s about feeding our families. You’ve reduced the Coast Guard to food stamps and food pantries. That’s what they’ve reduced us to.”

The pantry is set to reopen Monday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the same hours on Tuesday and from 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday.

Donations of refrigerated food, such as dairy products, can be accepted.

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© 2019 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.