Winston-Salem Journal, N.C., Scott Sexton column [Winston-Salem Journal, N.C.]
(Winston-Salem Journal (NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sept. 01--Deidra Munford was understandably frustrated when she learned that a glitch in a new computer system was causing a delay in the recertification process for getting food stamps.
Still, she was willing to be patient. Human beings make mistakes.
Then she found out that local officials couldn't give a definite answer as to when it would be fixed. She voiced her disappointment and then did something she never thought she would: Munford wrote to the newspaper to see if we could do anything.
"Because it's not just me," Munford said. "There's a lots of people this is affecting. I have two children who started school Monday ... thank goodness they get to eat breakfast and lunch there because when they come home for dinner and there's not much in the freezer, what are you supposed to tell them?"
It's not like Munford's a free-loader -- I know some of you are thinking that -- or a malingerer.
She's a single parent with three kids (two are school-age). She works part-time and she'd like to work more. But times are tough, and programs such as food stamps -- the government calls it "Food and Nutrition Services" these days -- were intended to be a safety net for families such as Munford's, people who strive but need a hand.
She's not happy about having to ask for help, but she's not about to let her kids go hungry, either.
"Food stamps are a supplement to me," she said. "I work. They (the Department of Social Services) have my pay stub. They know."
Here's the way the system works (or is supposed to work) for Munford. She's eligible for $401 a month in food stamps. She gets the aid mid-month and then heads to the grocery.
She plans carefully, and buys food in bulk. She knows exactly how much her freezer will hold, and saves enough to buy perishables such as bread and milk each week.
"Some of us who use food stamps use them for food," she said, taking a swipe at a nasty stereotype.
The system wasn't perfect, but it worked.
Then earlier this month, Munford learned the hard way what others in her situation have been whispering about for weeks: the state Department of Health and Human Services, in an attempt to improve efficiency, achieved the polar opposite.
We're from the government. We're here to help.
Overburdened food pantries
According to press releases -- some might call them propaganda -- circulated in July, the Department of Health and Human Services, along with county departments of social services, would be going to a system called NCFAST that was alleged to make it smoother to apply for "income support," programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.
What's happened so far is that the computer system has sputtered. Computer servers in Raleigh have crashed, and local DSS workers across the state have been slammed with an enormous backlog of data entry.
What that means in practical terms is that when people such as Munford go through what had been a smooth recertification process, they found out instead that the money they count on to feed their families would be tied up in computer limbo for God knows how long.
"When I finally got through to someone, they told me that maybe I could go to the United Way or a food pantry."
"Yes, we are sending them to community agencies," said Melinda Hartley, a supervisor in the Forsyth County food and nutrition program. "They can get a food box with enough for 10 days."
When things got dicey, Munford confessed to her pastor what she was up against. "I don't like to tell people that I'm without," she said.
(As soon as he heard, the pastor brought food to the family like any good Christian would.)
Hartley isn't happy about the situation, either. She and her colleagues didn't go into social work so they could tell poor people they couldn't help them.
Approximately 3,000 of the county's 27,000 food-stamp recipients get recertified each month. Hartley didn't know how many people have been jammed up or how long it will take to fix.
"I can't give a specific answer because it's not something I can control," she said. "We don't know when it will be resolved. I wish we did."
Until then, hungry families are directed to already overburdened community food pantries.
And what happens with a food box good for 10 days runs out? Maybe they can eat cake.
(c)2013 Winston-Salem Journal (Winston Salem, N.C.)
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