NC’s food stamp backlog reduced, but weekend work required

mcassella@newsobserver.comFebruary 7, 2014 

The Growers Market of Fuquay-Varina has seen a jump in attendance since receiving a grant that enables customers to use food stamp debit cards.

NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

After weeks of frantic work, the food stamp application backlog has been whittled down to a few hundred, with the state and counties hoping to have done enough to satisfy federal demands for improvement.

Still, some state and county workers are preparing to work through the weekend as the Monday deadline to clear the bulk of the overdue food stamp application looms.

“We are optimistic that we will meet the Feb. 10 deadline,” said Julie Henry, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a warning Jan. 23 threatening to cut off the money it sends the state to administer the program – about $88 million each year – if the longest-waiting applications weren’t cleared by Monday. The backlog for those applications, specifically those more than 90 days old and any emergency applications, has been reduced by 92.5 percent in the weeks since.

Food stamp application processing was slowed last year with the expansion of a new public benefits software program called NC FAST, which aimed to increase efficiency. But county workers struggled to make the new system work and slowdowns ensued. The application pile-up built to tens of thousands of cases, triggering a series of critical letters from the USDA as hungry families flooded the state’s food pantries.

The federal ultimatum sent the state into a frenzy. The state DHHS deployed its employees to counties to help winnow down the excess.

“Counties made tremendous gains last weekend when their staff could focus exclusively on processing applications and recertifications,” said Wayne Black, director of DHHS Division of Social Services, in a prepared statement. “We expect to make similar progress this weekend.”

According to DHHS, as of Friday morning, 13 counties had 10 or more applications remaining. Wake County, which started with a pile nearly three times larger than its closest competitor, still had the largest backlog – 178 remaining applications.

Liz Scott, Wake’s assistant division director for social services, said county workers have been making home visits and calling clients where additional information was needed, as well as working with the state on cases that still needed resolution in the system. But she said progress was being made, and she anticipated that staff working over the weekend would clear up the remaining cases.

“It has been a nonstop effort to get this completed,” she wrote in an email.

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