NC's online food assistance program produces long waits, frustration

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.com afrank@newsobserver.comAugust 5, 2013 

A sample credit card people use to redeem food stamps.

ROECK

  • Food aid through NC FAST

    The Food Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps) is designed to help low-income households with monthly food expenses. Benefits are supposed to be deposited monthly into a household’s electronic account.

    Households are issued a card that works like a debit card at food stores.

    Wake County Human Services

— The state’s new electronic benefits payment system, aimed at greater efficiency, instead has Wake County food aid recipients waiting as long as eight or nine weeks for funds to arrive to put food on their tables.

Longtime Southeast Raleigh activist Octavia Rainey told Wake County commissioners Monday that the problems have caused dozens of people to show up at her house to ask for help in getting food from churches, food banks and other sources.

Known as NC FAST, the $48.2 million system was supposed to provide a new way to pay into recipients’ electronic bank accounts, but has been beset in Wake by repeated glitches and slowdowns.

State officials say the system is supposed to start providing Medicaid benefits through NC FAST next year. But they acknowledge the problems that brought Rainey before commissioners Monday.

“I should not have people knocking on my door at quarter to seven asking me for help that human services staff is paid to provide,” Rainey said. “We do have people suffering in Wake County.”

People whose income falls below 200 percent of federal poverty levels, many of them “working poor,” are eligible to receive food and nutrition benefits, also called food stamps. County and state human services officials have been dealing with Wake’s issues from the state’s $27 millionNC FAST program since February, after first registering clients with it in October.

Problems with the system have been worsened by a food stamp caseload that rose from 19,000 in Wake County in 2008 to 40,000 cases in 2012.

Commissioner James West, the board’s liaison with Wake County Human Services, noted that Wake County has hired more people and devoted other resources to fixing the problem. The commissioners voted this summer to spend more than $1 million on the problem as part of the 2013-2014 budget.

After Monday’s meeting, West said he is concerned to hear that Rainey and other callers were being directed to voicemail message boxes, only to get late or nonexistent responses.

“I hope she will have these people call me,” he said. “These are basic needs we are talking about.”

Samara Lupold used to get her family’s food stamps on the 15th of each month, like clockwork. But about six months ago, they didn’t come.

“It was the 16th, the 17th, and we still hadn’t seen them,” said Lupold, of Cary.

A message on the Wake County Department of Human Services’ main line told her to try her call again later. Lupold hadn’t received any warning about possible delays, and only learned of the persistent computer problems when she called someone she knows at Wake County.

Four North Carolina counties, including Johnston, started using NC Fast last year. The rest of the state went online in March. The system is designed to digitize food and nutrition program records, with the aim of eventually increasing efficiency.

But that hasn’t been the case in Wake, said Liz Scott, the assistant social services division director for Wake County Human Services.

A ‘learning curve’

“It’s been slow,” she said. “We’ve had a learning curve in implementing the system,” as well as glitches and downtime.

People registering now will probably wait 60 days to receive benefits rather than the 30 required by law, Scott said.

Every month, nearly 4,000 people have to apply for their annual recertification. State and county officials said measures to reduce a backlog of at least 3,000 cases have included hiring 37 temporary workers, working overtime and providing self-service computers and support staff in the North Raleigh-area Swinburne Building so that clients can apply online

Ricky Diaz, communication director for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement Friday that the state is working closely with counties to “minimize the impact on clients.” He could not be reached for further comment Monday.

Lupold and her twin sons, 9, were lucky – a friend brought them three huge bags of food, she said. She got her benefits two weeks after she expected them. It could have been a random, forgivable glitch, Lupold said, if the same thing hadn’t happened again in July. Her family’s food stamps were late again, by about a week.

Referrals to food pantries

Terry Foley, director of the Catholic Parish Outreach Food Pantry in Raleigh, said she gave 12,253 people groceries in July -- a 20 percent increase over last year.

County offices have been referring people to food pantries, Foley said.

“So they are trying to connect clients up with resources for food, but you know, we’re only giving out a few days to a week of groceries,” she said.

But some people don’t have a car to get to food banks, or they don’t know what resources are available, said Lupold, who has been unemployed but is about to start a new job.

“For all of us (getting food stamps) it’s hard enough to have to ask for help without having it turn into a fiasco,” she said. “I’m not somebody who is just sitting on my bum collecting a check.”

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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