Food stamp program still lagging, hundreds without assistance
SALISBURY — After her husband lost his job, Jessica Ferrendelli said her family relied on side work as mechanics to make ends meet.
It wasn’t long before they were showing up at the Department of Social Service for assistance.
Now, though, the family has joined hundreds of Rowan County families having to wait for that help — hoping that their accounts are processed soon as a new system for food assistance lumbers through its infancy.
On Thursday, Ferrendelli applied for help at Rowan Helping Ministries, one of several agencies where the Rowan County DSS office is directing people who need food.
The 27-year-old mother of three said she recently went to the DSS office to renew her EBT food card, today’s version of food stamps. She was told her family was due to join the new NC FAST program, and that would cause a temporary delay.
“It’s taking closer to 12 weeks,” Ferrendelli said. “I don’t understand how they can expect people to wait for three months without groceries. This is the government. This is what it’s for — to help people, I thought.”
NC FAST (North Carolina Families Accessing Services Through Technology) is a statewide program that is expected to speed up services to families in need.
In June, however, cases began to backlog across the state as developers and DSS employees worked to convert existing cases from the old system to the new one, Rowan County DSS Director Donna Fayko said.
“There’s about 2,000 re-certifications per month that have to be done,” Fayko said. “We’re about 1,000 behind, which is not too bad, but it’s bad if you’re a family that doesn’t have food.”
Fayko said the process was improving through mid-July, but an update to include changes as a part of the Affordable Care Act added more delays.
Fayko said only five families out of the hundreds who have not received benefits could have to wait up to three months for recertification.
She said the majority of the backlogs are from July re-certifications.
First-time applicants, Fayko said, are typically processed in the standard 30-day period.
“We’re also providing vouchers in extreme situations,” she said.
RHM sees increase
Kyna Grubb, executive director at Rowan Helping Ministries, said the organization has seen a 20 percent uptick in applicants seeking assistance in recent months.
Grubb pointed to summertime months as part of the boost, but said the North Long Street office is seeing a significant number of residents who no longer have food assistance.
With food donors oftentimes out of town or on vacation, Grubb said, the summer is typically the hardest time for an organization that depends heavily on donated food. Last year, Rowan Helping Ministries received and distributed more than $764,000 in donated food items.
“It’s a challenge,” Grubb said. “The challenge is always keeping our pantries stocked, especially in the summertime.”
Volunteers come in daily to pack plastic bags for families applying for help.
As the aluminum cans clanked off each other Thursday, Grubb pointed out some shelves that were already running dry.
A completely stocked food pantry at the center would go empty in two days, she said.
Grubb said the organization is also seeing an increase in residents needing financial support.
“A lot of folks have lost their unemployment. So we’re seeing a lot more folks coming in for financial assistance because of unemployment being cut,” Grubb said. “I look forward to us having more jobs in our county.”
Until then, she said, struggling families are having to choose between food bills or utilities.
“Families are making really tough choices on which bills to pay first,” Grubb said. “I am concerned about the increasing poverty rate that we’ve seen over the last five years.”
In Rowan County, the poverty rate has risen above 20 percent and nearly half the households receive some sort of public assistance.
For the Ferrendellis, the process is also demoralizing.
“It’s embarrassing enough to have to go and ask for any kind of assistance,” she said. “It’s even worse knowing that when you’re already on a very tight budget, ya know, how do you cut more ends?”
Ferrendelli said she has three children and oftentimes takes care of another two at her home. She has relatives and neighbors who are struggling, too, and sometimes depend on pooled resources to get through the week.
On top of that, she said, some agencies only allow families to apply for food every 90 days.
“What are you supposed to tell your kids? ‘I can’t take care of you? I can’t afford it right now?’ ” Ferrendelli said. “These are necessities. This is life. If these agencies can’t help, where do you turn? Where do you go?”
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.