State officials say they’re closing in on what was up until recently a massive backlog of thousands of low-income North Carolinian households waiting weeks or months for food stamps.
At a legislative committee hearing Tuesday, N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos told lawmakers that a “herculean effort” from state and county social services workers whittled down the number of emergency cases in the state from more than 23,000 to just 25 cases in less than three weeks.
Monday was a deadline set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to handle high-priority cases and those more than 90 days old or face the revocation of more than $88 million North Carolina receives to run the federally-funded program.
“We believe that we have successfully achieved our first milestone with the USDA,” Wos said at Tuesday’s legislative hearing.
She did not have an estimate of the costs DHHS and individual counties incurred in overtime and other expenses in order to meet the USDA deadline. Wos also told lawmakers that the department would prevent any future backlogs.
“I can assure you that DHHS will continue to work as aggressively as we have,” Wos said.
The food stamp backlog persisted throughout much of 2013, created when DHHS implemented pieces of a complex benefits delivery technology system called N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology). County-level social services workers, who are the ones to process applications and food stamp renewals, encountered major glitches with the new system, making it impossible in some counties to access the system.
Thousands then went without food stamps, provided with federal funds through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The backlog rose to more than 30,000 in December, shortly after the USDA threatened to withhold funding. DHHS officials believe many, as many as half, of that caseload could have been duplicate applications.
Despite the rapid decrease in the backlog, not everyone waiting for food stamps is getting help yet.
The USDA deadline on Monday was largely to address situation where individuals had been waiting more than 90 days or who were classified as in need of immediate help. The department is facing an additional March 31 deadline to clear the remaining backlog.
DHHS statistics provided on Tuesday show there are more than 750 applications for food stamps pending, with 500 of those in Wake County. Renewals, or recertifications, are also lagging behind, with DHHS numbers indicating 14,333 households are delayed, though 96 percent of those cases are less than two weeks old. (Click here and here to see county-level data.)
Maria Best, 72, of Greensboro, said she has been waiting since Dec. 9, just over two months, for her monthly food stamp renewal.
Living on her own off of a limited income, Best said she has no way to buy food for herself and has depended on children and grandchildren to buy her food.
“It’s been really hard,” said Best, who also recently finished breast cancer treatment after a diagnosis last March.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers said Tuesday they were pleased the vast majority of the backlog had been handled, some expressed concern about how long it took the state agency to ensure needy families were getting food.
“I’m very (grateful) that we finally have this backlog behind us,” said state Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat. “The thing that disappoints me that is that it took seven months to address the backlog and we had several thousand people harmed in the process.”
It took threats from the federal government to cut off funding to get people the help they needed, McKissick said.
There may also be additional families that have slipped through the cracks and aren’t receiving food assistance or showing up in DHHS statistics.
Shana Brennan and Zakari Yousey, a Statesville couple that care for their 2-year-old daughter as well as Brennan’s 12 and 9-year-old sons, estimate they last received food stamps in March.
Since then, they say they’ve been evicted from one rental house, may have to move out of another and have sent Brennan’s two sons to live with relatives because they’re unable to feed the family off of the $150 that Yousey earns weekly working at a Thai restaurant.
He said he’s sometimes able to bring home extra rice from his work, which ends up being his daughter’s only meal.
“We have been doing everything that Iredell County DSS has asked of us and have been without food stamps for almost a year now,” Yousey said. “My wife and I have starved to make sure the kids could eat, and have been barely scraping by.”
Yousey and Brennan say they’ve called and talked with Iredell County social services staff multiple times, only to be told that the N.C. FAST system was bogged down and the couple needed to be patient.
DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry, when asked about the family’s situation, indicated Iredell County social service records show Brennan was asked to provide paperwork about the family’s rent and income in July, and stopped receiving food stamps when no documents were produced.
But both Yousey and Brennan deny that description of events, and say their food stamps allotment, which used to be $796 a month, ceased several months before July and that no one in Iredell County mentioned any missing paperwork during the couple’s frequent calls to ask about the status of their food stamps.
“We keep calling them every month,” Yousey said. “They just say, ‘just wait, be patient.’’
Iredell County DSS Director Yvette Smith did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Brennan, who said she would have happily made additional copies of any documentation or reapplied to the agency had if it meant her family would eat.
“We don’t have enough food to get through the day,” Brennan said on Monday.
Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or firstname.lastname@example.org.