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Decade-long food stamp backlog leaves thousands in Meck County hungry

NORTH CAROLINA — For more than 10 years, Channel 9 has been asking the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services why a paperwork problem is keeping food off the table for many families.

The county has a near-constant backlog of recertifications for SNAP benefits, or food stamps.

In 2013, a new website was to blame. In 2022, DSS said there were significant increases in new application and recertifications. Last month, the department never responded to our inquiry.

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On Wednesday, Channel 9 was told that 3,445 families didn’t get their benefits on time because North Carolina stopped processing waivers and is facing staffing challenges.

While families do get retroactive benefits once the recertifications get processed, the delay has real-life implications for parents who rely on it to put food on the table. Jennifer Bustle, a Cornelius mother of three, reached out to investigative reporter Madison Carter for help after she said she was blindsided by the backlog.

“My food stamps always go through on the 17th of the month and they always run out within a week or two,” she said.

Except that didn’t happen this month.

“If they’re running behind, they did not let us know so that we could kind of try to plan something [or] try to get a referral to a food bank,” Bustle said.

Bustle recounted her conversation with a DSS employee after she said it took three days to get through.

“I said, ‘Is there anything I can do? Do you have all my paperwork because I sent in my recertification?’” she said. “She looked in the system and she said, ‘Yes, we have everything we need from you. We’re just behind. You’ll just have to wait and keep checking every day to see if there’s money on the card.’”

Carter reached out to Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham, who told Channel 9′s Joe Bruno in 2022 -- she’d keep the pressure on the county for a fix.

“We shouldn’t have let this happen,” Cotham told Carter.

She says county leaders weren’t made aware of what she calls an “emergency with a capital E and an exclamation point. Now, she has more questions for those leading the division.

“When do you start planning? How many do you have to be behind before you start realizing you got a problem here?” Cotham asked.

Carter learned the backlog is a constant battle for the county. The department reported facing a high of 8,424 cases in May 2022, but were able to clear the backlog in February 2023. Now, just five months later, as of July 21, there are 3,445 cases currently in need of processing.

Cotham shared more answers with Carter Wednesday about how the department is planning to process those cases.

Carter was told Mecklenburg County is:

  • Utilizing overtime to process overdue cases, saying there are an average of 50 employees working overtime each month
  • Creating what it calls a “power team” of staff and supervisors to process overdue cases and address urgent needs
  • Using temporary employees
  • Transitioning 60 staff from a call center to help with processing cases

Finally, Carter learned the county is requesting state and federal waivers to help eliminate some of the administrative red tape in processing food stamp recertifications.

The State Department that processes the paperwork told Carter in a statement, “NCDHHS is committed to working with our county partners who administer Food & Nutrition Services (FNS, formerly food stamps) benefits to ensure all eligible families across the state have timely access to healthy and nutritious food. We would refer you back to Mecklenburg County for information on the amount of recertifications they are processing.”

DHHS directs families to resources for help finding food near them.

The backlog issues that persist have not been resolved in 10 years of Channel 9′s coverage. Carter told the department we’d like to sit down and to ask some questions face-to-face about what is not working. She was granted that interview Wednesday and is currently in the process of scheduling the discussion you’ll see only on Channel 9 in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, Carter was able to get the following information from a department representative for families with emergent needs for food:

“Customers who visit our Kuralt and CRC locations with an emergency need for assistance are provided a 2-day supply of food from an internal food pantry and a Loaves and Fishes referral for an additional 7-day supply of food. Loaves and Fishes has a network of food pantries across the community that provide this assistance.”

(WATCH PREVIOUS: Complaints continue with food stamp delays)

Madison Carter

Madison Carter, wsoctv.com

Madison is an investigative reporter and anchor for Channel 9.

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