Logjam of applications about to clear up
Staff members at Davidson County Division of Social Services worked their keisters off to meet a Feb. 10 deadline to clear longstanding and emergency food assistance cases.
Food and Nutrition Services is a federal food assistance program that helps low-income families. Eligibility is determined on the basis of income, household composition, immigration status and resources available.
At the end of December, data from the North Carolina Division of Health and Human Services showed that statewide there was a backlog of nearly 36,000 cases.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds food and nutrition services, warned state officials that, unless the state clears the remainder of the backlog by March 31, they risk losing about $88 million in federal funding.
Director Dale Moorefield of Davidson County DSS said that insufficient staffing at the state and county level contributed to the backlog. Changing eligibility standards for food nutrition as well as Medicaid made the application process more difficult and time consuming.
"We had to work 667 hours of overtime during a six-week period in January and early February to catch up our backlog," he said.
According to Julie Henry of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, applications are considered untimely if not processed within 30 days, and expedited applications for emergency benefits are considered untimely after seven days.
As of Dec. 31, Davidson County had 505 pending applications, 295 of them untimely.
In January, Davidson County DSS received 1,099 food and nutrition service applications, up slightly from the average 1,000 per month they have received during the past year. As of Feb. 19, the department had 172 applications pending, but only seven were overdue.
Moorefield said the department plans to hire additional staff to handle the workload of both food and Medicaid caseloads.
Davidson County residents may apply for food nutrition service benefits in person at the Lexington Governmental Center, 913 Greensboro St. in Lexington or in Thomasville at 211 W. Colonial Drive.
Applicants can mail in applications, or apply electronically via E-Pass. The self-help portal was designed with 24/7 access.
Moorefield said applicants who tried to apply via E-Pass or NC FAST www.ncdhhs.gov/ncfast/ told him that it actually took longer than applying in person.
"The state case management system of NC FAST is not as efficient as it needs to be for staffing at the current level to able to process benefits timely without working significant overtime," he said. "[In person applications] are more successfully worked up and processed due to the caseworker being able to handle many verifications and requests for information at the interview, rather than sending correspondence later."
Davidson County currently has 14,883 households who receive food assistance benefits.
Some Thomasville residents who have been told they qualify for food assistance benefits still aren't receiving them. Many of these are spilling over into the office of Fair Grove Resource Center, a food pantry.
"I know of people who haven't received their food benefits in three months," said Executive Director Terri Fisher.
Since Jan. 6, Fair Grove has served 1,814 people. Of those, 107 were new clients.
Fisher fears that, if they hadn't been closed for snow days, they would have run out of food.
"In January, donations are normally down," she said. "We have had a horrendous time trying to keep up with the demand and trying to keep food in here. We fed over 80 people per day every day that we were open."
By the end of December, the food pantry had already given out all the food that was donated during the holidays.
In addition to those who are still waiting on benefits, Fisher helps numerous people whose benefits are too low.
On a recent afternoon, Constance Hairston's daughter came with her to pick up food. Hairston took home two boxes filled with food — including fruit, turkey bacon and chicken.
"I just love them," said Hairston as she gave Fisher a hug.
"We are so grateful for the people here," Hairston's daughter said. "If it wasn't for this place, her food supply would be drastically limited."
Hairston explained that her food and nutrition benefits have been reduced to $15 per month.
"I get Social Security, but my caseworker told me I make too much. By the time I pay my electricity and water bills, there's not much left over," she said. "I don't understand it, but you make do with what you have."
Fisher said that occasionally she receives criticism because the same individuals keep coming back for food.
“If they’re on a fixed income, they’re on a fixed income,” she said. “They are never going to make more money. We just help them. It’s what we do.”
Want to help?
Fair Grove Resource Center welcomes food donations. Deliver items to 159 Myrtle Drive in Thomasville. For more information, call 472-7217. The most needed food items include the following:
Breakfast item such as grits, cereal, oatmeal, Pop Tarts
Peanut butter and jelly
Macaroni and cheese
Oodles of Noodles
Protein products such as dried beans, canned chicken and tuna