New system for food stamps chokes on workload

Benefits delayed by backlog
Mar. 20, 2013 @ 07:56 AM

If you rely on food stamps, now officially known as Food and Nutrition Services, you may not get your money on time.

Thanks to a new statewide, online case-management system designed to streamline the application process, folks seeking recertification for food stamps are seeing a delay in getting their monthly benefits.

“We have a big batch to recertify in March. Potentially, a large chunk ... will not receive (benefits) on the date they should," said Will Wakefield, the adult and family support services program administrator for the Caldwell County Department of Social Services. There are more than 17,000 in the county receiving food and nutrition benefits who are seeking to recertify to continue receiving the benefits.

Statewide, about 1.6 million people receive food stamps, according to Lori Walston, spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Wakefield says folks are being referred to area food banks, such as Yokefellow of Caldwell County or the South Caldwell Christian Ministry. Yokefellow Executive Director Sharon Osbourne has seen up close the negative impact the new system is having on those relying on food assistance.

“We are seeing more and more people with their benefits disrupted,” Osbourne said. “Sometimes a population that needs our services are the least able to navigate a system that is based on middle-class structures and habits. When hunger is at an all-time high, we need systems that are responsive and sympathetic.”

In January North Carolina began shifting to the new system for managing social services benefits, including food stamps. Food and Nutrition Services is the first division to test the waters. Caldwell County began to rebuild its database in January. Limited manpower is creating a bottleneck.

“It started in the middle of January, and we had a big crush (of cases to process) in February," Wakefield said. "We have heard complaints. We explain to them we are working on it.”

Alicia Barlow relies on social services each month to help put food on the table for her and her husband, Stephen, and their five children. For the past six years, Stephen Barlow has found steady work at Tyson Foods in Wilkesboro while Alicia Barlow tended to the children, now 11, 10, 8, 5 and 4. At age 16, she enrolled in the food and nutrition program. Every six months, she submits paperwork for recertification. She says she usually gets a letter confirming her status, and her electronic benefit transfer card is credited on the 17th of each month. This month, despite filing on time, she never got the letter.

“I called last Monday, and they said the applications are behind,” said Barlow, now 27. "Tuesday morning, they called me and said it would be two more weeks (before her account is credited). I felt like they should have had everything worked out before starting it (new system). A whole lot of people depend on the food.”

EBT is an electronic system that replaced paper food stamp coupons with a magnetic-striped card (similar to a credit or bank card). Recipients use EBT cards to access their benefits. Most major grocery stores are authorized to accept the cards. As long as there are benefits in the account, the recipient’s account is debited for the amount of the purchase. The store receipt shows the amount of benefits remaining in the recipient’s account.

Barlow receives $529 a month on her EBT card. She would often run short at the end of each month, but it was enough to get her family by if they stuck to ground beef and Hamburger Helper and ramen noodles. With no money since March 10, and her EBT card empty until at least the beginning of April, she is relying on family for help.

“Basically, I’m out of options,” she said. “It’s definitely a problem. To make a decent meal for a family of seven is really challenging.”

Wakefield is sympathetic to Barlow’s plight.

“I wish there was something I could say that would make it better,” he said. “She is certainly struggling and working hard at the same time to do things right. This will be a one-time thing. We’ll get through this. The reality is, we’re putting all available people and time in this. We’re doing the best we can. We think this will be short-lived.”