WASHINGTON, D.C. — Renowned Chef Jose Andres is offering free meals to federal workers affected by the shutdown, as he has helped people economically struggling in the past. Andres has fed victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and people in Guatemala who were affected by a volcanic eruption that left many people without homes.
On Wednesday, workers showed their federal ID to come in for a free lunch at 701 Pennsylvania Ave NW, which is between the White House and Congress, a choice Andres said is symbolic and something he hopes will be a “call to action” to lawmakers.
The shutdown began on December 22 over President Donald Trump’s demands that Congress fund a $5 billion wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Around 800,000 federal workers — both those who are furloughed and those who are essential and required to work during the shutdown — have been affected.
Walking over to the long line where Andres’ test kitchen and pop-up ThinkFoodLab was giving out free meals, a Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency worker struck up a conversation with a friend who asked him what he was up to.
“Yeah I’m going to head over there and get my free lunch,” he said, laughing.
A performer named Tony Covay set up outside and sang about the shutdown as a long line of federal workers, many of them from the U.S. Justice Department, waited for their lunch.
The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency worker, who wanted to go by a pseudonym, Tom, said he hadn’t seen any other deals but Andres’ offer on the news this morning. He supports a wife and two boys.
“It’s my first meal of the day,” he said, anxious to get in line.
Federal workers also volunteered to serve food to their fellow workers. A group of four women told ThinkProgress that it was personally gratifying to help people right now.
“She was on eggs. I worked on sandwich prep,” one woman chimed in. “Yeah it was fun.”
“It was a lot of fun,” another worker said. “We would guess about half of the people helping out were furloughed.”
The workers said that aside from how rewarding it felt to help other people, it felt good just to have something to do. One woman said her husband doesn’t work for the government so she is doing better financially than most people, but she said she doesn’t know how to fill her days right now.
“It felt rewarding to do something in general,” one woman said, as everyone laughed.
Another volunteer added, “I like my job most days and would rather be there than sitting at home on the sofa.”
Robert, who is with the Justice Department, where he is working without getting paid, said he can get by for another few weeks but the fee lunch but was still helpful for his budget. He found out about the lunch from following Andres on Twitter.
He said about the effort to help federal workers, “It’s great. He has a lot of wonderful restaurants in the area and I love eating at his restaurants so I wanted to come see what he was doing here. I appreciated what he did for Puerto Rico and what he’s doing right now, it’s just terrific.”
“I have no idea when it will end,” he added. “I don’t think there’s an end in sight, which is really sad.”
Joan, who also works for the Justice Department, and preferred to use a pseudonym, said the lunch was very “financially beneficial” right now. She said as a single person she doesn’t have any support from a two-income household like some workers.
She said she’s doing OK right now, but “in a week or two…I don’t know.”
“I’m very disappointed. I expect my leaders to know how to negotiate and not to continue to hold us hostage,” she added.
Karl, who works for the Department of Justice and preferred to only use his first name, and supports two children and his wife, said he’s worried about paying his mortgage and that although he has a “bit in savings” it’s not enough.
Karl said of lawmakers in Congress, “They need to do their job so i can get paid.”
Tony Covay, a local D.C. performer, said he’s seeing the ripple effects of the shutdown across D.C. He has a permit to perform at the Smithsonian but since it shut down, he couldn’t perform there. He said he had been out performing near the lunch line since 9:30 a.m.
“[The shutdown] got my money. A lot of the panhandlers and the people out here who are homeless, they were getting money from the government’s people and now they can’t get any money,” he said. “I’m just struggling along like everybody else, hoping someone will give in.”