Food benefits still slowed by backlog

Apr. 26, 2013 @ 07:53 AM

Jennifer Huskey qualified for food benefits from the Caldwell County Department of Social Services in February and received a payment Feb. 19.

For the past two months, though, she has had to rely on food banks for herself and her three children, ages 12, 10 and 7 while waiting for a computer backlog to clear so her benefits can resume.

“I called, and they said they were putting in a new system, and there might be delays,” Huskey said. “Last Friday, they told me it could take three months (to get caught up). It’s embarrassing when you try to get  your life in line and this happens.”

Many people like Huskey qualify for the benefits formerly known as food stamps through the federal Food and Nutrition Service, but are waiting weeks -- or months -- for help to arrive.

Huskey signed up for free emergency food assistance with Yokefellow of Caldwell County, a local food bank. Qualified clients there get a bag of groceries once each month. On her last visit, she received frozen soup and crackers, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, pasta and spaghetti sauce, dried beans, fruit, canned tuna and a small assortment of vegetables. While grateful for the groceries, she said it likely would not last a week. She gets $300 a month in child support, but her rent is also $300. She mows her dad’s lawn and does chores at her mother’s house for $20 each. Huskey also is late on her power bill. She took the few extra dollars she had and decided to feed her kids instead.

In January the state DSS began shifting to a new online case-management system, designed to streamline the application process. The Food and Nutrition Service benefits were the first to switch to the system. Statewide as of April 2012 about 1.6 million people were receiving FNS benefits, according to Lori Walston, spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Each month, cases are recertified, but limited manpower is creating a bottleneck for those among the more than 17,000 in Caldwell County receiving food and nutrition benefits.

Caldwell County's backlog of cases to process began in February and March, said Will Wakefield, the administrator of the adult and family support services program of the Caldwell County Department of Social Services. Potentially, a large chunk of people who already had qualified for benefits and then had to apply for recertification have seen delays in their benefits, Wakefield said.

But it's also affecting new applicants, not just those being recertified. Greg Catterson is self-employed, but business has been down. He earned only $320 last month to support himself and his two children, ages 11 and 6. He says on April 23 he went to social services to sign up for FNS benefits for the first time. He said he was told it would be several months before he would get assistance.

“I paid $9,000 in taxes last year, but when I need help, there’s no one around,” he said.

An electronic system replaced paper food stamp coupons with a magnetic-stripped card (similar to a debit card). Recipients use an electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, card to access benefits.

All 100 counties in the state are now using the new system. The speed at which clients get their money depends on the county and the available resources, Walston said. Catawba County was one of the first to pilot the new system, rolling out the first phase in January. In Catawba County, roughly 28,000 people, or about one-fifth of the county's population, get food benefits.

"When the conversion from the old system to the new system happened, it took our county a good three to six months to get the bugs worked out and fully understand it," said John Eller, director of social services in Catawba County. "It was a tough go for us."