Disaster food assistance has been approved for Sampson County, one of 18 counties that received the go-ahead Friday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer aid to those directly impacted by Hurricane Matthew.
The Sampson County Department of Social Services will begin taking disaster food assistance program applications Saturday, Oct. 22, at the Sampson Agri-Exposition Center, located at 414 Warsaw Road in Clinton. Applications will be taken from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for five consecutive days through Wednesday, Oct. 26.
Applicants will need to provide a form of identification. Anyone physically unable to apply in person can either call Sampson County DSS at 910-592-7131 or can authorize someone else to apply in person on their behalf by sending a signed statement with them.
The Disaster Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) program is separate from the regular FNS program operated by the Sampson County DSS. Anyone already receiving regular food assistance benefits will not be allowed to apply for the disaster program. Instead, individuals already receiving such benefits will receive an automatic replacement to ensure a maximum allotment for the eligible household is received.
Misinformation circulating on social media earlier this month caused an uproar, as some believed Sampson was already approved to provide disaster food benefits. DSS disseminated some information, but was handcuffed on what it could say as the requested waiver to USDA was being considered. That approval came Friday morning and by Friday afternoon, a worker was on the way to Sampson County with secured EBT cards to distribute.
“We all know there was a lot of concern from folks,” said DSS director Sarah Bradshaw. “They were anxious because of misinformation on social media. That created some confusion. We have been bombarded with calls, even some from county employees. People have been anxious, understandably. They are needy, and they were misled.”
Bradshaw said a staff of 60 will be accommodating what she anticipates will be a horde of people at the Expo Center through the weekend and into next week. Those staffers will be working at five or six different stations to handle the rush. There will likely be wait times and cases will vary, but Bradshaw said ideally the application process, from beginning to end, will take 30 minutes or less.
“We want to provide the best customer service possible,” she remarked.
While figures of those affected by flooding and extended power outages were not available, Bradshaw said it was “well over 50 percent” of the county. Locally, Emergency Management, Tax Office and Inspections personnel are just some of the many who have been working long hours in coordinating damage assessment with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The county has not offered disaster food assistance since 2011, when Hurricane Irene hit. Following that storm, DSS staff had to take everyone’s address, research their power company and the impacts and then determine eligibility. It brought significant delays to application processing.
‘This time it did take a little more time than usual, but the state has to do a lot of work to get to the point they can send the (waiver request) to the USDA,” Bradshaw noted. “We were requesting as a state to be allowed to venture off the normal food eligibility requirements. They’ve been doing all that work since the recovery began.”
That work has included compiling information from power companies serving affected counties and data on flooding to gauge the impacted areas. Waivers for disaster food assistance were requested for 18 counties that had 50 percent or more of their population without power and significant flooding impacts — Sampson was one of them.
“That will make it possible for us to process applications quicker,” Bradshaw noted.
Automated supplements are also expected to be issued to allow active October recipients of the 18 counties to receive the maximum allotment for their household size.
“People have been coming in for replacement benefits already,” Bradshaw noted. “We’ve seen over 3,000 families since we opened back up last Wednesday.”
The supplement is the difference between the household’s October 2016 benefits and the maximum allotment for their household size. The household size will include all ineligible and disqualified members. Households that received the maximum allotment for their household size will not receive a supplement.
Maximum allotment benefits are as follows: $194 for a household of one; $357 for two; $511 for three; $649 for four; $771 for five; $925 for six; $1,022 for seven; and $1,169 for a household of eight. The amount then increases by $146 for each additional member of the household after that.
To be eligible, the household must have lived in the disaster area at the time of the disaster; must plan on purchasing food during the disaster period; and must have experienced at least one of several adverse effects.
Those effects include damage to or destruction of the household’s home or self-employment; food loss; lost or inaccessible income; inaccessible liquid resources; or a disaster-related expense that will be paid or anticipated to be paid during the benefit period, which will not be reimbursed. The window for countable income is Oct. 7-Nov. 6.
According to information sent to DSS officials in the 18 approved counties Friday, verification of residency and loss of income or inaccessibility of resources should be verified “when possible.” Verification of household composition should only be attempted if questionable. If verification is not available through county resources, DSS officials have been told not to pend the application, but accept client’s statement.
State officials are warning against fraud when apply for Disaster FNS benefits or requesting replacement benefits. All applications are subject to an audit. Those receiving benefits to which they are not entitled will be required to pay them back. Those who break the FNS rules may be disqualified from the program, fined up to $250,000 and/or put in jail for up to 20 years.
“There is a huge push by DSS and the state to warn of fraud,” said Bradshaw. “All county and state employees who apply for assistance will have their applications automatically audited.”
In the wake of Irene, applications in Sampson were “heavily audited,” the DSS director noted. Cases of fraud were seen across the state, including here. There is a large onus on the applicant to tell the truth and reporting requirements for DSS are stringent. A USDA representative will be on-site throughout the five-day process and, following each day, DSS officials must report how many applications were submitted and how many EBT cards handed out.
Everyone who applies will sign a form acknowledging the penalties for fraud and likewise be instructed by staff.
“They don’t leave the application site or sign an application without that being stressed,” Bradshaw attested.
For comprehensive information about the disaster food assistance application process, visit goo.gl/cIe5by.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.