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Food stamps glitch strands thousands in Guilford County

by Eric Ginsburg

The Department of Social Services has been scrambling to fix unanticipated problems with implementing a food stamps pilot program that left thousands of Guilford County residents without access to food.

The department has fixed the problem for the vast majority of recipients, but Steve Hayes, who oversees the food stamps division, said it is very possible there will be similar problems in the future.

“This is not a one-time, fix-it-thismonth-and-it-will-never-happen-again problem,” Hayes said. “Our hope is that next month it won’t be as painful.”

Every month about 4,000 people have to renew their food and nutrition benefits, and when the May re-issuance recipients went to use their food stamps, they found there was no money on their accounts.

Hayes said the likelihood for future problems could be decreased if recipients returned their regular reports on time and said half the problem stemmed from a backlog due to late reports.

North Carolina is piloting a new integrated social services software program in four counties before going live across the state that is designed to keep people who need aid from being forced to see different people for each aspect from food stamps to childcare. While the program will ultimately be more efficient and benefit recipients, Hayes said, there were unexpected technical difficulties and there is a sharp learning curve for staff.

Greensboro Urban Ministry immediately felt the effects, with double the number of people coming to its emergency food pantry, compared to typical months. Director Mike Aiken said they tried to get in touch with Social Services for several days to no avail, eventually hearing back weeks later.

Fortunately the crunch came when the organization, which receives no county money and very little government money in general, had a decent amount of food in its reserves.

“We find a lot of families end up becoming homeless in the summertime,” Aiken said,. “We know that if we don’t keep pushing [to get donations] in like three weeks we could be out. Human beings have basic human rights, and one of those is food and nutrition.”

The agency also sees a drop in food donations in the summertime, while children who received free and reduced lunch during the school year experience hunger and hardship.

Yolanda Spears didn’t realize there was something wrong with her food stamps until she was getting ready to check out at the grocery store. She’s on disability and has four girls who rely on the $163 a month in food stamps to get by.

Spears was told it would be one to 10 days for the problem to be fixed, but after two days she couldn’t wait and went to Urban Ministry. Most of her family is in South Carolina, and her niece in Greensboro had the same problem with her food stamps. Spears had nowhere else to turn. As an emergency food pantry, Urban Ministry only allows people to pick up bags of groceries four times a year.

Spears said came for the first time last month, because even with food stamps her family had run out of groceries. Even if there aren’t problems with her food stamps for the rest of the year, she said she still may not be able to feed her family.

The problems arising from the pilot program are miniscule in comparison to what could happen to millions of people nationwide if the US Congress cuts food stamps, which it is poised to do by bil lions over the next decade.

Members of New Creation Community Church in Greensboro created a video interviewing local food stamp recipients and church members about why they oppose the proposed cuts, which they say would force churches involved in hunger ministry nationwide to raise an extra $50,000 annually to fill the funding gap.

“I don’t see how that is possible,” the Rev. Frank Dew said in the video, which is posted on YouTube.

Aiken was also concerned about the possible cuts.

“Food stamps are a lot better than what we do,” Aiken said. “A strong food stamp program is crucial. Our government needs to take responsibility and that’s really key.”

More than 44,000 households in Guilford County actively receive food stamps. That translates to 95,000 people, 40,000 of whom are children, who rely on the program. Of the direct recipients, 57 percent are women, 62 percent are black and 23 percent are white. Only 8,364 are able-bodied adults with no dependents.

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