The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday February 4th

Food stamp need triples in county

Orange County is adapting to a new benefits system.

	<p>Sonya Dixon, known as Ms. Cookie, cooks and serves lunch at Learning Expressions Childcare Center on Thursday. </p>
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Sonya Dixon, known as Ms. Cookie, cooks and serves lunch at Learning Expressions Childcare Center on Thursday.

Sonya “Ms. Cookie” Dixon has been on food stamps for years, but when she didn’t receive her money one month, she panicked.

“It was like, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do now?’” the Chapel Hill resident said.

Social services didn’t have all of her information, so they couldn’t send her the money she needed.

“Luckily it didn’t take but two or three days,” she said.

One of her daughters has cerebral palsy and needs Dixon’s care, so Dixon said she can only work part time.

Dixon is not the only one who is increasingly reliant on the county’s help for food.

The food stamp caseload in Orange County has increased nearly threefold in the last decade.

Orange County Social Services handled 2,335 food stamp cases during its 2003-04 fiscal year, and the county’s numbers have since spiked to more than 6,300 cases last fiscal year and are continuing to grow.

That increase has put stress on county workers and a new electronic system designed to handle the influx.

A paperless system

Last year, the state implemented NC FAST, an electronic food nutritional services program, transitioning away from a paper-based system.

As part of a multi-phase startup, North Carolina executed the system in pilot counties in May 2012. The program expanded to additional counties in March.

The system allows people to apply for food stamps as well as receive payments in their bank accounts electronically.

Only four counties in the state have completely converted to the NC FAST system — Guilford, Catawba, Buncombe and Johnston. Orange County is set to finish its transition to the system by Nov. 13.

But NC FAST has made it difficult for some counties to efficiently handle the influx of cases, said Ricky Diaz, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Diaz said problems mostly come from the employees’ learning curve with the system, made worse by increased caseloads across the state.

He said the state is working to send resources and on-site support for county workers to handle the confusion.

“This is truly a partnership,” he said. “We’ve moved resources to counties having trouble.”

‘Bugs and glitches’

Diaz said after 40 years, there was a real need to implement a new system to combine all resources into one online location.

“This is a system that they’ve been asking for,” he said. “We have seen that many areas have been extremely successful.”

On a county level, Lindsey Shewmaker, human services manager for Orange County Social Services, said the employees were prepared to work around any problems with the NC FAST program.

“With any new system, there’ll be bugs and glitches,” Shewmaker said. “We’re obviously slower than we would’ve liked to have been.”

Shewmaker said she’s still excited to be moving toward a more efficient program, despite the county’s struggles with NC FAST.

“When everything is all the way done we think the system is going to have huge benefits,” she said.

She said her social services staff works hard to make sure glitches or delays don’t hurt the families in need.

Dixon’s main concern is also to ensure there is food on the table for her family. And despite her financial situation, Dixon said she keeps a positive outlook.

“I struggle every day, but I keep a smile on my face.”

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