NC families go hungry as food assistance delayed

RALEIGH, N.C. — Rahab Kinity didn't expect to find herself hungry.

The 38-year-old single mother supported herself and her teenage son working two jobs as a medical assistant, managing to save enough to buy a modest Raleigh home. Then, in June, she was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in her stomach, and her fragile financial security unraveled.

Too weak to work while she receives chemotherapy, Kinity applied two months ago for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. And like people desperate for help all across North Carolina, she is still waiting.

Earlier this year, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services launched NC FAST, a $300 million computer system that was supposed to streamline the process of applying and renewing government assistance. The name is an acronym for North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology.

Food bank volunteers quip that the new system should instead be called "NC FASTing."

Under federal rules, food stamp applications are supposed to be processed within 30 days. In Wake County, the state's largest, social services officials said the average wait for benefits is now 90 days.

Many wait far longer. That has led to huge increases in requests for help at private charities, where volunteers are struggling to keep food bank shelves stocked as the number of hungry people keeps growing.

Last week, Kinity arrived early enough at Catholic Parish Outreach in Raleigh to be No. 9 in the line that snakes out front each weekday morning. By the time the doors swung open at 10 a.m., it was already near 90 degrees. Her newly bald head covered with a thin scarf, Kinity was growing faint.

"I'm trying to stay strong, but I've been vomiting blood clots and I don't have any food," she said.

Kinity's doctor told her she should be drinking pricey protein shakes, but she can't afford them. She has lost 80 pounds since getting sick. Once inside, she sits patiently in a waiting room noisy with the cries of hungry babies.

Catholic Outreach Director Terry Foley said the last two months have been the busiest in the history of the food bank. She estimated that as many as 90 percent of the 12,000 served monthly are waiting for government food assistance. She has had to ration needy families to receiving just one week's worth of groceries a month to keep from running out, as has happened at some other food banks around the state.

"It's the double whammy -- the state cuts to unemployment benefits and the delays in food stamps," Foley said. "We're giving out less food to each family because of the numbers. That's all we can do."

Wake began processing all food stamp applications with NCFAST in February. Assistant county social services director Liz Scott said the applications process was already slow because requests for help have doubled since the start of the recession in 2008. Wake social workers are currently assigned an average load of about 2,000 individual cases each, she said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are more than 1.7 million people relying on federal food assistance statewide, getting an average of less than $4 each per day. One in six North Carolina households has faced food insecurity in the last year, the fifth-highest rate in the nation. Nearly 90 percent of all food stamp recipients live in a household with a child, a senior citizen or a person with a disability.

The state bought its new case management software from IBM and then hired technology contractor Accenture to modify the system. NCFAST is now being expanded to process applications for not only food stamps, but Medicaid, welfare and aid for people with disabilities living in adult care homes.

The stakes are high. The state faces a federal deadline of Oct. 1 to have the NC FAST system implemented to determine eligibility for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Despite the widespread problems processing food stamp applications, state officials are charging ahead with plans to rely on NC FAST to begin handling all state Medicaid applications at the start of October. The state is offering additional training for staff at county agencies and is hiring more than 160 temporary employees to try to work through the backlog in processing applications.

State Division of Social Services director Wayne Black said most of the glitches occurred when an NCFAST software update went out statewide July 15. Computers in some county social services offices couldn't handle the changes and simply failed to work.

Black said he didn't have a number for how many thousands of food stamp applicants or recipients are experiencing delays. Still, he expressed confidence NC FAST will ultimately get benefits to qualified recipients more efficiently.

"We're going to save taxpayer dollars," he said. About 80 percent of the NC FAST spending through 2015 will be paid with federal funds.

At a statewide meeting of county social services directors earlier this month, state DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos acknowledged the rollout of NC FAST has been bumpy but said fixing the problems are a top priority.

"We know this is a huge change for all of us, but the good news is that each day the situation is getting better and better," Wos said.

For Kinity, help can't come soon enough.

Since going on unpaid medical leave from her $12-an-hour job with Duke Health in Raleigh, she has fallen behind on her bills. She recently received a foreclosure notice on her house and expects her car to be repossessed any day. The family's gas has been cut off, leaving their home without hot water and heat as the approach of autumn has brought a chill to the nights.

Although she considers herself lucky to still have good health insurance, she has already racked up thousands in hospital and doctors' bills. While she waits to be approved for disability, collections agents routinely call her mobile phone.

Kinity's son, a high school junior, has talked about getting a job. She wants him to finish his degree.

Earlier this week, she used some of her remaining provisions from the food bank to prepare them a simple dinner of canned beans and sauteed vegetables. She has tried calling her county social worker to check on the status of her food stamp application only to get a recording telling her to leave a message. The voicemail box is constantly full.

"I've always been able to take care of myself," Kinity said. "As soon as I get better, I can go back to work."