By Keith Strange Staff Reporter
October 10, 2013
The failure of the federal government to come to an agreement on next year’s budget is hurting Surry County’s most vulnerable residents, shuttering programs that provide nutritional food to children and placing a question mark over whether the needy will receive next month’s Food Stamp benefits.
On Tuesday, state officials announced that there will be no more WIC (Women, Infants and Children) vouchers disbursed until the shutdown ends.
Surry County has about 2,000 residents who receive the benefits.
“What that means is there will be a waiting list for all WIC participants,” said Maggie Simmons, public information officer for the Surry County Health and Nutrition Center. “Because of the government shutdown, the funding isn’t here to support the program. When the patient comes in, they will not receive vouchers for food.”
After the announcement was made, representatives with the Surry County Board of Commissioners announced that they had approved $10,000 in emergency funding to help provide WIC benefits to those children whose families receive the benefits but don’t qualify for Food Stamps.
“We have a crisis, and we just wanted to help the people of Surry County as much as we can,” said Commissioner Larry Phillips.
The county gave the nod to the money being allocated immediately, and it will be formally voted on during the board’s November meeting.
While the voucher program, which provides supplemental food for infants, pregnant women and children to age 5, is not being distributed other services like nutritional education and breastfeeding support will continue, Simmons said.
And no one is immune.
“The waiting list will include everyone receiving benefits,” Simmons said. “There will be no more vouchers at all.”
Simmons said all local officials know is that the program is being paused in the face of the shutdown until further notice.
“The state will notify local agencies of the date to discontinue or modify the waiting list,” she said. “Until then, no food benefits will be issued.”
Clients on the waiting list will be “moved from the list in an orderly manner depending on the level of funding at the end of the shutdown.”
Simmons said they, like WIC recipients, are in a wait and see mode.
“We will just have to watch day by day to see what happens,” she said. “When the program is reinstated, participants will be mailed their vouchers, or they can come and pick them up.”
Calling for Community Support
At this point, Simmons urges county residents to support the program by donating to local food banks, which are seeing a spike in the number of residents needing their services.
“We’re trying to get citizens to get out and donate,” she said. “For example, our Surry County Health Foundation has donated funds to supply formula to a few of our most needy families.”
Simmons said employees at the health department feel the pain the shutdown has caused local residents.
“This certainly isn’t something we wanted to do,” she said quietly. “WIC is a federally-funded program, and this is a direct result of the government shutdown. We hate to do it because we’re truly concerned for the families of Surry County.”
Future of Food Stamps Uncertain
Wayne Black, director of the N.C. Department of Social Services and former director of the Surry County office, said he is watching Washington as well.
“We’re getting information from federal agencies on a daily basis about our funding status,” he said. “And are communicating almost daily with our county partners regarding funding availability.”
Black called the future of programs like Medicaid and Food Stamps “a moving target.”
“Both of them are okay right now, and will be available through the month of October, but I wouldn’t commit beyond then about the availability of benefits because it’s changing daily, and sometimes hourly, as information comes in from Washington.”
While Black said he believes the government will continue to fund Medicaid benefits, Food Stamps is another matter altogether.
“We think Medicaid will be ongoing, and are confident we can continue to provide Food Stamps through October, but as of now we’re waiting more information about the future,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there is a problem necessarily, but we’re certainly going to have to keep an eye on it.”
Food Pantries See Rise in Need
With benefits in question and thousands of families hurting in the county, local food pantries say they are seeing an unprecedented spike in requests for services.
“We’re getting a lot more referrals from departments within Social Services,” said Beverly Jones, coordinator of the Foothills Food Pantry.
And while requests are growing, donations are down from last year.
“I was telling our board president this morning that the year-to-date food cost is $7,000 more than at this point last year,” she said. “Add to that the fact that our donations are $8,000 below last year and we’re $15,000 short of where we were last year at this time.”
Jones said she doesn’t want people to think no one donating, though.
“Surry County people are so generous with us that I really feel guilty sharing that information because that’s how we get by,” she said.
But Jones said the huge increase in the number of first-time visitors, families who have never needed assistance before, is indicative of the problems in Washington.
“It’s increasing every month,” she said of the number of new clients.
Jones said that right now, food supplies “are okay.”
“We’re able to meet the needs right now of everyone who comes in for food assistance,” she said. “But I don’t say no to a donation. If we don’t need it this month, we may next month.”
Reach Keith Strange at email@example.com or 719-1929.