State sends help to clear delays in food benefits
The backlog that has had low-income families waiting weeks for food benefits may be cleared by the end of June now that the state has sent five employees to help, an official with the Caldwell County Department of Social Services said.
It can't happen soon enough for people like Lisa Cook, who has not received her food benefits in two months, despite re-certifying for them in March.
It also still leaves a window of anxiety for parents whose children have been getting free breakfast and lunch at school.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has diverted three additional state employees to Caldwell County starting this week to assist with NCFAST, the state’s new online case management system designed to streamline the processing of applications, including those seeking benefits from the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
Caldwell County was one of the first counties to implement NCFAST in January and start rebuilding its database, but the work hasn't kept up with the case load.
“It’s aggravating to have to wait when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from,” Cook said. “Eventually you’re going to run out of resources.”
Ricky Diaz, communications director for the NCHHS, said that the extra state workers "could be there (Caldwell County) a week, two weeks” to help clear the backlog. “Each county runs into its own challenges.”
Will Wakefield, adult and family support services program administrator for Caldwell County Social Services, said the state first sent two workers to help for the past two weeks.
"We've had two people for 'over the shoulder' technical support," Wakefield said. "Now that we have five here, they are helping with actual input into the system. They have certainly been helpful, and we feel like we're started to gain some ground."
South Caldwell Christian Ministries in Granite Falls is well aware of the situation. Executive director Deborah Thomas said the food pantry is providing 65-pound food bags once a month for those behind in food benefits, and an additional 15-pound bag can be obtained if needed. Normally, the food pantry provides a food bag once every three months.
“They’re frustrated,” Thomas said.
The end of school adds to the burden that a lack of benefits will cause for low-income families. Nearly 60 percent of the students in Caldwell County Schools, or 5,965 out of more than 12,000, participate in the free and reduced meals program. To qualify, a household of four can earn up to $29,965 a year for free lunches, or up to $42,643 for reduced lunches.
Julie Robbins has not been among those who haven't received food benefits, but she said that while school is in session the 40 meals a month that the schools provide makes a world of difference in her budget, which includes $360 a month in food benefits. Her 12-year-old attends West Lenoir Elementary, her 14-year old Gamewell Middle. Both participate in the free and reduced meals program.
“It will be a big impact (on our food budget),” Julie said. “They eat a lot, especially in the summertime.”
Beginning June 3, free lunches will be made available on weekdays from the Caldwell Schools Child Nutrition Program throughout the summer at seven sites in Lenoir, said Guy Garner, Caldwell Schools child nutrition director. There are no income requirements or registration, but the food must be eaten on-site. The food is available for any child under age 18. The program is federally funded.
“These kids are the ones who come into our schools on Mondays with smiles on their faces because they know they will be eating lunch,” Garner said.
The following sites will be serving free meals to children under the age of 18 through the Caldwell County Schools Child Nutrition Program from June 3-August 23 (will be closed the week of July 1-5):
• Caldwell Gardens/Piedmont Apartments, 11 to 11:30 a.m.
• Caldwell Gardens/Berkley Street, 11:30 a.m. to noon
• Harrington Apartments, 11:15 a.m. to noon
• Lenoir Soup Kitchen, 10:45 a.m. to noon
• Poplar Street Apartments, 11:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.
• Redwood Park, 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 ;.m.
• Summit Apartments, 11:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.