North Carolina counties are in the midst of converting to an online system that should make it easier in the long run to apply for all kinds of assistance through the state. But manually entering all that data has caused backlogs and many people are seeing delays in receiving food stamps. That’s made it tough on those people and the food pantries that are stepping up to fill in the gap.
The food pantry Loaves and Fishes in Charlotte typically gets around 900 referrals from Mecklenburg County DSS a month, but in May it was up to 2,352. The group’s director Beverly Howard blames the conversion. A few months ago DSS met with Howard and warned her the pantry would likely see more people due to delays in food stamps.
“I was very disappointed that we were being called upon to meet a need that was being caused because someone in a position of authority did not plan this conversion better,” says Howard.
The meeting with Loaves and Fishes resulted in what DSS Economic Services Director Rodney Adams calls a partnership. But that did not include the county giving food pantries any financial assistance. It was more of a heads up.
Adams says he told the food pantries, “There’s a potential that you may see more people. We can’t guarantee that. However, in the event that there would be more people, would you be able to accommodate?”
And they said yes, although for Loaves and Fishes it means buying more food wholesale.
DSS notified people receiving food stamps that they could see delays and gave them a list of food pantries. The county also hired 55 people to help transfer food stamp applications onto the new system. Each file takes 60 to 90 minutes to enter and the county has 75,000 of them to convert to the NCFAST system.
So are there ways with the conversion to ensure there aren’t delays?
“I think that’s a question for the state,” says Adams. “The system that’s established is a state proprietary system. And prior to the implementation of NCFAST, here in Mecklenburg County, we were processing applications at least 99% of the time in a timely manner.
Adams says Mecklenburg County’s delays are between two and four days.
“Mecklenburg is doing very well,” says Julie Henry, a spokeswoman with the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Some counties saw up to a month in delays.
“That burden was on the counties to try to address bandwidth needs, to try to address staffing needs they have. And resources vary as we know from county to county in North Carolina,” says Henry.
For that reason, she says the state sent staff out to counties to work with them, sometimes for a matter of weeks.
Mecklenburg County is among the last counties in the state to convert to the online system. The delays are likely to continue through November.