MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As the shutdown of the federal government continues, we're hearing more and more about the array of programs and services affected. One program that's had to stop operating has causes particular hardship for low income seniors. It's a food subsidy service run by the Agriculture Department and it's a nutrition lifeline for thousands of elderly people, and other sources of food assistance aren't easy to come by for this population. From Grand Rapids, Michigan, Patrick Center of member station WGVU reports.

PATRICK CENTER, BYLINE: Bill Anderson is 81. His wife June is 83. Medical emergencies have depleted their savings. Social Security provides enough money to pay the utilities and insurance, but they turn to a government food program for meals.

JUNE ANDERSON: The pantry gives you food, but it's still not enough to really put in your refrigerator. If they cut that pantry off, I don't know what we're going to do.

BILL ANDERSON: I would get out and beg before I'd let us go hungry.

CENTER: The Andersons rely on weekly deliveries of nutritionally balanced surplus food.

RON CUSIN: Which has like dried milk in it. It has some type of pasta in it. It usually has two different types of juices.

CENTER: That's Ron Cusin. He boxes up the basics that come from the USDA's Commodity Supplemental Food Program, you know, the one with the government cheese. If you're over 60 with an annual income under $15,000, you qualify. Distribution agencies in 40 states and two Native American reservations hand it out.

Here in Michigan, 29 agencies feed tens of thousands of residents - or they did, until October 3 when the USDA stopped reimbursing those agencies. At Kent County's Community Action Agency, Judy Cusin had to break the news to 1,500 low-income seniors that their next meal had been eliminated.

JUDY CUSIN: They had some not nice words. They said the people in Washington shouldn't get paid because they're not doing their job is what we heard a lot of.

CENTER: During his last delivery, Ron Cusin met with seniors face to face, and it was difficult for everyone.

CUSIN: It was heartbreaking, it really was, to talk to either seniors or apartment complexes that I deal with, that I've been dealing with for over eight years. It was tough. They're like family to me.

CENTER: Cusin is frustrated that there is food sitting at the warehouse, but moving it would defy USDA orders. One alternative could be for seniors to line up at a local food pantry. But that's where you see the shutdown's collateral damage.

WAVERLY KNIGHT: I could point to you which food is from the government.

CENTER: Waverly Knight is assistant director at the Northwest Food Pantry.

KNIGHT: We get all of our meat from the government.

CENTER: Or you did.

KNIGHT: We did. Hopefully that will come back.

CENTER: Aid officials explain nearly one-quarter of USDA's surplus food trickles down to local pantries. For Knight, that makes up one-half to three-quarters of her inventory, slimmer pickings for the families who come here to fill their stomachs.

Community Action Agency of Kent County is recommending its seniors stretch the food they already have by watering down milk and soup. For NPR News, I'm Patrick Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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