Food stamp snafus linger

Concert to benefit hard-hit Caldwell County Yokefellow
Mar. 28, 2014 @ 08:39 AM

Tuesday morning, Caldwell County Yokefellow received three tons of food for its pantry. All of it probably will have been given away by this coming Wednesday, officials say.

The ability of Yokefellow, a crisis assistance agency, to serve its clients with food is under greater stress than ever. In the first two months of 2013, the pantry provided food assistance to 4,427 clients. During the first two months of 2014, it served 6,117 clients, a 38-percent increase.

Yokefellow director Sharon Osborn blames ongoing problems with NCFAST, the state's system for processing food stamp cases.

"I honestly do believe the food stamps issues is a big part of this, more so than just people accessing a food pantry," Osborn said Yokefellow. "NCFAST is a chronic indicator of peoples inability to access food. Food stamps is causing food pantries to not have enough food, and our numbers are not coming down, which is stressing our ability to serve these folks."

Social services staff in counties across the state struggled since the state started rolling out the computer system, NC Families Accessing Services through Technology, or NCFAST, early last year. The system was intended eventually to expedite the handling of a host of government benefits, but benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps, were the first, and Caldwell was one of the first counties in the state to handle food stamps through NCFAST.

Numerous problems, including glitches in the NCFAST software, caused a backlog of food stamp applications and recertifications, causing people to go weeks or months without benefits. Under pressure from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has threatened to hold back $88 million in federal funding to manage the program, the state has been trying to clear the backlog. Counties across the state have made progress by working long hours, but the problems in the system remain, so a backlog keeps forming.

The state faces a final deadline of March 31 -- this coming Monday.

As of Thursday, there were a total of 231 food stamp applications that had not been processed within the 30-day window they are supposed to be. Caldwell County had five of them, including four that were 20-30 days late. Catawba County also had five, while Burke County had two.

In the meantime, those who rely on food stamps are having to re-think their economics. In human services agencies, it is known as choosing between housing, hunger or health care.

"When the system is behind and people are used to using $400 a month (in food stamps), they have to now use rent and power bill money for food," Osborne said. 

A fund raiser featuring gospel music is being held Saturday at Mountain Grove Baptist Church, 2485 Connelly Springs Road, to help raise money for the ministry for not only food but also the help it gives people who have trouble paying their electric and other utility bills.

"Of the 30,000 pounds of food donated in February, 20,000 was from Second Harvest (a regional food bank), and 10,000 was donated by the community," Osborne said. "However, we still had to purchase $3,500 worth of food that month."

Tickets for the benefit are $5 at the door, or paid in advance at Leap of Faith and Cornerstone Bible Bookstore. For more information, call 754-7088, or e-mail yokefellowfriends@gmail.com