Thousands of North Carolinians are unable to find relief from hunger as state programs have kept them from accessing their food stamp benefits. Ever since the state rolled out its Families Accessing Services through Technology (NC FAST) system in 2011, households across North Carolina have been plagued by the systems hold-ups and administrative issues that prevent them from getting assistance.
As of Dec. 31, more than 30,000 North Carolina families had waited over a month to receive food stamp benefits. More than 9,200 of those families waited three months or more. While the new NC FAST system was implemented to improve program administration through new technology, this drawn out, messy transition is unacceptable.
If food stamp distribution is not fixed quickly, N.C. Health and Human Services could be jeopardizing the well-being of our future generations. Children especially benefit from nutrition assistance, and they will miss out on potential health and education gains if their families are stuck waiting for aid. In general, low-income children who receive food stamp benefits are better off than their low-income peers. They are more likely to have access to sufficient, nutritious food, are less likely to be in poor health, are hospitalized less often and are less likely to have developmental or growth delays.
Other studies show that kindergartners whose families always had enough to eat perform 13 percent better in reading and math by the third grade than their peers whose families struggled to put food on the table.
Every day, at least 1 out of every 4 children in North Carolina wakes up without the security of knowing where he or she will find the next meal. In some counties, such as Robeson, Scotland and Alleghany, over a third of the children face the constant threat of hunger.
NC DHHS needs to focus its energy on improving the NC FAST system and immediately delivering benefits to make sure that no one is going hungry. The department should continue to put extra personnel and resources toward testing and resolving problems in all parts of the system. The state should look for guidance from other states like Utah that have overcome challenges to successfully implement similar technology systems.
DHHS also should create expedient, alternative ways for participants to claim and receive their benefits. Programs like NC FAST are meant to use technology to make social programs easier for families to use and to reduce administrative waste and costs. Of course, the transition to a new system will have its hiccups, but it is unacceptable for any government program to hinder people from getting enough to eat.
Melissa Burroughs of Chapel Hill is majoring in public policy at Duke University.