News & Record (Greensboro, NC)
June 14, 2012
A new software system at the Guilford County Department of Social Services designed to better coordinate services has left hundreds of families without food stamps since mid-May.
In turn, some of those families have overwhelmed food pantries, including the Greensboro Urban Ministry, with food requests. The Rev. Mike Aiken, the ministry’s executive director, said staff members are fielding nearly double the amount of requests expected.
The social services department is working overtime to help clients who have gone without food stamps since the department began using a new software program May 21, said Steve Hayes, the department’s assistant director.
The program switch had affected more than 4,000 families that recently applied for or needed recertification for food stamps in May, he said. About 44,000 households in Guilford County receive food stamps.
“This is a pilot program, and unfortunately it has caused some delays in benefits for folks,” he said. “We’re working as hard as we can to get those eliminated. … These are people who really care, and they do want to make sure that people get food.”
As of Tuesday, about 350 families had not received their food stamps on their state-issued cards, Hayes said. The staff hopes to be caught up by Friday, but he warned that some clients could see issues during the next benefit rollout. The transfers occur monthly.
States use the Electronic Benefit Transfer card to issue food-stamp benefits to recipients. Clients use the EBT cards like debit cards to buy food at grocery stories. “This is a complex case-management system, and the learning curve for us is really steep,” Hayes said.
Also, some of the department’s computers needed to be updated because they did not support the software. Local and state officials said some clients did not receive their benefits because of the computer system. The clients, however, did not submit the necessary paperwork for recertification or verification.
Officials suggested people turn in those forms quickly when they receive them in the mail to ensure they receive benefits. “If you don’t file it or take it in on time, then you risk losing your benefits at the end of six months,” said Julie Henry, spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Those clients faced an additional hurdle with the launch of the new software system, she said.
Guilford County volunteered to be a part of the state pilot program with three other counties to test the new case-management system called N.C. Families Assessing Services Through Technology (NC FAST), Henry said.
When it’s fully implemented, NC FAST will give counties a single access point to match consumers to economic benefits and social services. All 100 counties could be integrated under NC FAST by July 2013, she said. “It’s a huge undertaking for the department and for all of the counties,” Henry said. “We’re trying to support them the best we can. We chose to do it as a pilot, and this gives us a chance to get it right.”
In the meantime, Guilford County families are seeking help at food pantries. From May 17 to June 7, Urban Ministry assisted 859 men, women and children with emergency food orders. That’s compared with the same period last month, when 643 people were served.
During the school year, Urban Ministry receives about 35 orders, Aiken said. When children start staying home for summer break, the number rises to about 50. Urban Ministry processed about 90 emergency food orders this past Monday and Tuesday. About half of the requests came from families affected by the lack of food stamps, Aiken said.
Despite the rise in requests, the pantry has sustained its food supply, thanks in large part to last month’s letter carrier food drive, Aiken said. But he warned, “We’re afraid if we use up all our resources, in three weeks we won’t have anything.”
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