While administered by the state, Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) is a federal program that helps families whose incomes fall below a certain level. Participants are issued a card that can be used in grocery stores to buy food. The cards cannot be used to buy tobacco, pet food, paper products, soap products, or alcoholic beverages.
State officials say as the economy has worsened, more and more families have not been able to make ends meet. It's not just layoffs. Many companies are cutting back on overtime and part time work that many families count on to balance their monthly budgets.
State officials are also seeing a steep increase in the number of people signing up for unemployment benefits. They said Wednesday that they could run out of money to pay claims, but plan to borrow if necessary to keep the money flowing rather than raise business taxes.
"If our fund goes to zero, we do have a plan that has been tried-and-true and proven," Andy James, spokesman for the Employment Security Commission of North Carolina said. "I'm hoping we don't get there, but if we do it will still be several months down the road."
North Carolina's unemployment rate is at 7 percent and monthly unemployment payments are between $115 million and $130 million a month. The state currently has $282 million in reserve for jobless benefits, but expects to collect between $500 million and $700 million in the first half of 2009.
If the economy worsens and unemployment payments rise to $150 million a month, the reserve would be wiped out by the middle of 2009, James said.
In the meantime, state unemployment offices are trying to speed the application process and handle everything in one visit so people don't have to return.