Raleigh, N.C. — In mid-February, Connie Poole woke up in her Wake County home, grabbed her phone and punched in a number in an activity that was quickly becoming routine.
For days, she had been waiting on a monthly food stamp allotment that should have hit her account on Feb. 7. Every morning since, she called the number on the back of her Electronic Benefit Transfer card to check her balance.
Now, with a crippling winter storm bearing down on the Triangle, those calls were getting more frantic.
"When my feet hit the floor, I check to see what's in there so I can get groceries before the snow," Poole said.
As the storm approached that Tuesday, Poole was down to the last few items in her cabinets. Whatever was left, she said, would have to stretch as far as possible.
"We've got peanut butter if the lights go out," Poole said. "I scraped up enough money to get hamburger so I could make a pot of chili. So, that will last a few days."
That same morning, a few miles away, the head of the agency responsible for supervising the state's food stamp program was delivering good news to lawmakers.
After several weeks of "herculean effort," Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos told a legislative oversight committee that the agency met a federal deadline to significantly reduce a massive backlog of food stamp cases.
Tens of thousands of North Carolina families had waited months for help buying groceries, prompting federal officials in December to threaten the suspension of about $88 million in administrative funding for the state.
DHHS has pledged to clear the remaining cases, which include about 1,000 families like Poole's, by the next federal deadline March 31. Part of meeting that deadline means making sure the backlog never gets that bad again.
That can get complicated.
State and county officials say there are a lot of factors that contributed to the backlog in food stamps, which existed to some degree before 2013 and grew quickly in July with technical issues from a new records system.
But another one of the major contributors is the explosive growth in demand for food and nutrition benefits over the last several years. Although that growth is slowing as the recession ebbs, it still lags behind other signs of an improving economy in North Carolina.
That's taxing everyone from case managers and their clients to the food banks that try to fill in the gaps when things get bad.
"This is the lag where the rubber meets the road. The economy starts to grow, technically meaning we are witnessing recovery," said Gene Nichol, director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "That doesn't translate to immediate impact to people, particularly in the bottom third."
Problems mount for food stamp clients
This isn't the first time Poole, a 51-year-old diabetic who stays home to care for her disabled husband, has been forced to wait for food and nutrition benefits.
The couple has been on food stamps to supplement her husband's fixed income for around four years. But when she submitted her paperwork in January 2013 as part of the required semiannual recertification, Poole and her husband were forced to wait.
The same thing has happened every six months since.
When a new social services system called NC FAST began launching in stages in early 2013, similar problems popped up around the state. Case workers took longer to key in cases as they learned the new system and dealt with system hiccups, which caused sporadic delays. But in July, a software update significantly slowed down productivity and sent the backlog to almost 70,000 by August, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Those technical glitches have since been fixed. But in Wake County, where Poole receives her food stamps, officials say the biggest problem now is that the staff is outmatched.
From 2008 to 2012, according to data from the Wake County Division of Social Services, annual food stamp cases in the county doubled, from 20,000 to 40,000, at a time when personnel numbers barely budged.
That mirrors substantial growth in the number of cases statewide.
Individuals on food stamps in N.C., monthly average
In the last five years, the number of households receiving food stamps in North Carolina rose by about 55 percent to about 786,000.
The effect is the same even when adjusted for population growth. About 17 percent of the state's residents receive food stamp benefits, compared to 12 percent in 2009.
That growth isn't surprising given the depth of the recession, Nichol said.
"That's exactly what the program is supposed to do, of course," he said. "When we hit tough economic times and the skids, the food stamp program is supposed to expand so the impacts of unemployment and poverty are ameliorated somewhat."
Yet despite the recent drop in the state's unemployment rate and other positive economic indicators, the number of recipients is still on the rise – albeit a much slower one.
According to a report released Feb. 20 by the USDA, there's always some lag between the fall of the unemployment rate and the decrease in food stamp demand. But given that the U.S. unemployment rate fell for a third consecutive year, the report said the increase in food stamp participation now bucks a historic trend.
"It suggests that the increase in employment growth hasn't been felt equally among the population," said Victor Oliveira, an agricultural economist at the USDA who authored the report.
Percentage of N.C. population in SNAP
Nichol said that, given the long and dramatic increase in unemployment in North Carolina and the rippling effect of food insecurity, it will take much longer for any recovery to trickle down to the 18 percent of the state population currently living in poverty.
"In theory, we've been in recovery," he said, "but we've had an explosion of poverty since 2008."
Given that most of the benefits of this better economy are the nation's top earners, it's not clear how long the lag will last.
"Now that we're in a period of recovery, I think it's an open question of when we can expect that recovery to be felt by people in the bottom of the income distribution," said Anna Gassman-Pines, an assistant professor of public policy, psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.
To compensate for the larger caseload, Wake County leaders approved a plan this month to hire 36 additional employees for their social services division, including 26 more case workers. But Wake County Assistant Human Services Director Liz Scott has pointed out that it takes several months to bring new workers up to speed on the new system.
That didn't help food stamp clients like Elizabeth Powell, a Wake County resident who waited more than four months to receive her benefits after recertifying in October.
Powell said she repeatedly called Wake County social services about her case, often getting nothing more than a voicemail message. She should have been among the cases cleared before the Feb. 10 USDA deadline, but Wake County officials weren't able to explain why she waited so long.
After WRAL News raised questions about her case last week, Powell said her case worker called the next day to tell her the benefits had been delivered.
"I'm hoping I'm not the only one in this situation, but I'm wondering," she said. "To me, it's such a farce."
Food banks hit hard
With no food assistance to contribute to the family, Powell said she turned to several different food pantries for help. From there, she could get a few staples such as bread and canned goods, maybe ground venison donated around the holidays.
But with so many people picking up donations, there's often not enough to go around.
"You're grateful for anything," Powell said. "But sometimes, anything's not enough."
Alan Briggs, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Food Banks, said this demand hasn't receded despite signs of recovery. The last few years have seen a 40 to 50 percent spike in the amount of food provided to needy residents through partner food pantries.
Given problems with NC FAST, a reduction of food stamp benefits in November, a federal shutdown and other factors, he said the food distribution increased 10 percent in both of the last two quarters of 2013.
"Even though we've been able to press our business partners and donors for [food] contributions, they're going out faster than ever," Briggs said. "When we talk to our partner food pantries, what we hear is they need more."
Sometimes that serious need means people go without.
After finding a zero balance on her card yet again last week, Poole was turned away from a food bank in Fuquay-Varina because she had been there less than a month earlier. They told her she could return in five days.
"I won't have the gas because I used it to get there," Poole said.
Continued frustration for waiting clients
Food stamp clients stuck waiting say often what causes the most anxiety are the ripple effects of missing benefits. For some, that means tough choices between paying bills and putting meals on the table.
Poole said she's particularly worried about the consequences of not taking adequate care of her husband.
"If the state comes in and says, 'Well you ain't got the food in the house to keep him going,' do I get in trouble because I didn't keep food in the house?" she said.
She's already complained about the delay to the governor's office. She did the same thing when her benefits were late in August, but the county still took three weeks to get her recertification processed.
Despite her frustration, Poole said she knows there are others in worse shape. When her family goes hungry, at least they know why.
"We don't have kids, but when you've got babies that don't understand there's not enough food to feed them?" she said. "That's not right."
Regardless of the reason, she and many others say they're tired of waiting.
"I don't understand how and why they can't get it figured out," Poole said. "If they ain't got the right people, hire the right people."