RALEIGH -- North Carolina officials say delays in processing food stamp applications aren't getting better.
WRAL-TV reports that data provided Friday by the state Department of Health and Human Services show that, as of Dec. 31, more than 30,000 families waited more than a month to receive food stamps benefits through the state's new NC FAST system.
That's worse than a U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate based on mid-November data that found 20,000 households were experiencing significant delays.
NC FAST is a $300 million computer system intended to streamline the process of applying and renewing government assistance for items like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.
Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the new system, social workers across the state say they're experiencing major problems processing claims through NC FAST.
"We've got a big sign in the lobby that says things are working a little differently, things may take longer than what you're accustomed to them taking," explained Janet Sawyer, who supervises the NC FAST system for Pasquotank County Department of Social Services.
Sawyer said her staff members are growing frustrated with the system, which has been plagued with problems since this summer.
"At the time that we finish the case, it looks right and their ongoing benefits may not be there and we don't know there's a problem until their medical provider can't verify something," Sawyer said.
One client in Pasquotank County had to go all the way to Governor Pat McCrory's office before she was able to get her claim processed.
Federal officials told DHHS Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos last month the department hadn't provided a plan detailing how it would reduce delays.
Now, the USDA is threatening to pull its funding for North Carolina's food stamp program.
Already, local non-profits are feeling the squeeze from food stamp applicants in dire need of help while they wait on the system to process their applications.
Liz Reasoner, executive director of the Food Bank of the Albemarle, said her agency has seen a huge increase in demand for help since the summer.
Most recently, requests for assistance jumped nine percent from October to November. Data for December was not yet available.
"It's a short-term issue but in the immediate when you're hungry, it's a crisis for you and your family," Reasoner explained.
The delayed processing for food stamp benefits comes as lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are deadlocked over a measure to extend unemployment benefits. As a result, many families have run out of their monthly income.