Food-stamp backlog sends Durham residents to food bank

Sep. 23, 2013 @ 09:11 PM

The numbers tell the story: Almost 19,000 more Durham residents were served by the food bank in Durham during July and August than the same period last year.

That’s up almost 18 percent, and parallels the troubled conversion of the state’s NC FAST computer software that has left Durham residents and others throughout the state without food stamps.
At the Durham branch of the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, 127,223 people were served at pantries and shelters in July and August, compared to 108,375 during the same time last year, according to Christy Simmons, manager of public relations for the nonprofit.
“Our goal is that no one goes hungry,” Simmons said. “So whether someone is struggling to put meals on the table due to layoff, divorce, major illness or this food-stamp delay, we’re going to provide food for them.”
At the downtown Urban Ministries, 55-year-old Martin Maola knows what it’s like to pull out his food stamp card at a grocery store and find that it doesn’t work.
The problem is that the food-stamp money was in his account, but a computer software glitch kept it from being released. He left the store empty-handed.
Maola and his wife lost their Durham home during the housing crunch about two years ago, and have been on food stamps since June 2012.
“We basically lost everything,” the unemployed computer programmer said. Maola is living at Urban Ministries, and his wife is at Rose Manor nursing home being treated for a medical condition.
“I’m trying to get back up on my feet and get my wife and I into an apartment,” he said.
After a frustrating experience, Maola’s food-stamp card recently started working again.
“I kept trying to use the card, and the last time I went to the store, it worked just fine,” he said.
But all is not well with 45-year-old food-stamp recipient Christopher Columbus Hargrove, who has turned to Urban Ministries for food.
“They [Social Services] dropped my food stamps from $340 a month to $16, and I’m two months behind,” he said.
Elizabeth Newman, manager of the food pantry and clothing closet at Urban Ministries, said more people are coming in for services.
“Every morning, we have five or six new families,” she said. “Some come just for clothes, but most are here for food.”
Bo Glenn, a volunteer, said the center sees about 26 families a day.
“What we’ve been noticing is that a number of them have come through with more urgency because their food stamps aren’t coming through,” he said. “They’re not all sure about why this is happening. Many of them have experienced food-stamp problems in the past, and the government has been cutting them in the last couple of years. But the problem appears to be worse now.”
At the Durham County Department of Social Services, which administers the food-stamp program – also known now as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) -- staffers have been working overtime to resolve the computer problems, and they’re making progress.
On Aug. 1, the department had 902 backlogged food-stamp cases in Durham, according to DSS Director Michael Becketts. That number had dropped to 102 on Sept. 13, he said.
“Durham is committed to making sure we’re getting people access to food who are entitled to it under the food and nutrition services program,” Becketts said. “Our staff is doing the best they can, the fact that we’re keeping up with benefits and reducing backlog tells me that we’re doing a great job.”
Becketts said his staff is often at the mercy of the state’s computer.
“About two weeks ago, we couldn’t log in for five hours,” he said. “That added to our backlog, which then causes concerns in the community.”
He said the states sends out information about how to work around the problems.
“It can be rather frustrating, because we’re trying simultaneously to make sure that our customers are getting the resources they need and to understand what the software problem is.”
His advice:
- Be patient with the department.
- If you qualify for emergency food-stamp help, let the department know. “If a family is in desperate need of food, one of the things we’ve done is give a small amount of money on a food card to a local grocery store while trying to understand why the application is hung up in the system.”
But if the problem persists, he said, “there’s very little we can do other than make referrals to food pantries, which is the last thing we want to do.”
Meanwhile, the department is working to cut the number of backlog cases to zero. Becketts said he’s optimistic.
“This computer system, when it functions the way it should, will be fantastic,” he said. “It will be easier on the client and staff. I think we see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

FOR INFORMATION

For food-stamp questions, call the Durham County Department of Social Services at 919-560-8000.