LUMBERTON — Glitches in the state computer system designed to expedite the receipt of assistance from the Department of Social Services is causing a delay in the distribution of food and nutrition benefits.
“We’re going through again what we went through last year,” Becky Morrow, director of Social Services, told her department’s board of directors earlier this week. “We have clients again that are two months behind in receiving their food stamps.”
Morrow said that problems plaguing the state’s Families Accessing Services through Technology — NC FAST — have caused a delay in 2,152 cases of food stamps being distributed to eligible recipients. She said that there are more than 100 cases where applicants have been found eligible to receive food and nutrition benefits but the “system will not release the benefits.”
Morrow said that the problems arising with the new system are not unique to Robeson County. Social services departments across the state are encountering similar situations, she said.
Case workers at the county department have been working since November to convert the case files of food stamp recipients to the new NC FAST program. Currently, there are about 21,000 food stamp cases in Robeson County, with about 800 new food stamp applications being approved each month.
Morrow said that her department has been working with the state to fix glitches as they arise.
“We get one problem solved and another one pops up,” she said.
Morrow said the state, at its expense, is providing in Raleigh additional training on the system to three members of her staff. At the same time, the state is sending three of its employees to Robeson County to help the local DSS employees reduce the number of backlogged food stamp cases.
When all the glitches are worked out of the system, NC FAST is expected to make it more efficient for benefits to be distributed to eligible recipients. One case worker will be assigned per family, making it easier to group benefits that a family receives into a more accessible file. Conversion of Food and Nutrition case files is only the first phase, with other forms of assistance, including Medicaid, expected to be added later this year.
“When the bugs are worked out, this system will save time and be more efficient in providing the delivery of services,” said county Commissioner Raymond Cummings, chairman of the county’s Department of Social Services board. “It will save time and be more efficient because it will allow there to be the sharing of information across all departments.”
Currently, the county issues about $5.5 million worth of food stamps each month.
To offset any hardship to families that might result from the delay in the receipt of their food stamps, DSS is continuing to operate a food pantry, according to Anthony Dial, the program administrator who oversees the food stamp program.
“The pantry has been a big help to temporarily help some families that have had to go a month or more before receiving their benefits,” he said. “Some days we may help seven or eight families, and some days there might be as many as 21 individual families that we help.”
Last November, the Robeson County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted in favor of providing $10,000 to be used to establish the food pantry and help families in the most serious need. The money is being distributed in $50 and $100 vouchers, Dial said.
At the same time the $10,000 was approved, the commissioners also approved a request by DSS officials that county employees who supply 10 non-perishable food items to keep the pantry stocked receive administrative leave time.
Dial said that good support from the county commissioners, county employees, and others have helped to keep the food pantry stocked.
“Just this week, we received 2,000 pounds of canned soups and juices from Campbell Soup Company,” he said.
“The food pantry has been successful in helping families make it through when their benefits have been behind a month or more,” Dial said. “These families have been very appreciative of the help that they have received.”