The Maryland federal food program for low-income women and children, which began dropping 6,300 women and children from its rolls this spring because of what program officials said was a lack of money, returned $240,000 earmarked for the program to the federal government last month.
Program officials also returned $1 million last year of the $15 million received from the government.
The reason, the director of the program said yesterday, is that the state does not have enough clerks to process those needing help. "We cannot see the people quickly enough to get them certified," said Steve Trageser, coordinator for the Maryland Women, Infants and Children program, which is known as WIC and is operated by the State Department of Health.
To remedy this, the state is seeking volunteers to help enroll needy women and children, he said.
In a related development, state officials concede that for the last eight years, they have miscounted the number of Marylanders receiving help by as much as 15,000 in the monthly totals they do for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides the money. An outdated computer program is at fault, officials said.
"We've been off for eight years," said Trageser, who blamed a computer program for counting all those eligible, as well as those actually receiving the food help. "It inflates the participation figures."
The incorrect figures also make it impossible to judge how well the program is reaching those needing its help. In a January study prepared by the USDA, the Maryland food program was found to have reached 43,000 recipients in 1980, or only 35 percent of the 122,604 eligible women and children. This rate was based on inflated figures, however, meaning the state was reaching a far smaller number.
In the last year, for example, the state reported to the USDA that between 52,000 and 58,000 women and children were receiving help. In reality, the number of Marylanders served was close to 42,000, Trageser said.
Officials of the USDA who monitor the Maryland program say the state is operating under a "corrective action plan" to report accurate information. No disciplinary action or loss of money is at stake because of the errors, said Pat Dombrowski, of the USDA's regional office in Robinsville, N.J.
The most recent money that Maryland rejected was a one-time grant from the federal jobs bill. In March, shortly before that money was offered, Trageser had said the program did not have enough money to end the state's waiting list or to add Frederick County to the program.
Now he said the state doesn't have enough administrative money to handle the extra food money.
The $1 million returned last year stemmed from federal cutbacks in other health-related programs, such as maternity clinics, he said, which reduced the number of places where women could sign up for the free dairy and breakfast items.
For 60 percent of the participants in Maryland, the government food, primarily dairy products, juices and cereals, is home-delivered by a Baltimore dairy. The rest of the women receive vouchers redeemable in grocery stores.
Jann Houbolt, director of the Maryland Food Committee, a citizens group that monitors hunger issues, said the problems with the computer have caused the dairy to deliver twice in one week to some homes and to skip others who are eligible.
The committee, which sent a strongly-worded letter to Gov. Harry Hughes decrying the return of the food money, urged that the state adopt a policy of spending all WIC money. It also asked that the state acquire a new computer system.
The eight-year-old computer system is owned by the state of Maryland and for the last three years has been operated by Science Management Corporation in Lanham. The president of that firm, Jim Kerridge, noted, "Everyone agrees the system has problems. Our job is only to operate and maintain it. We are not authorized to modify the property of Maryland."
Maryland officials say they were alerted by the Lanham firm about 18 months ago that the computer system was producing erroneous figures and needed a new software program. Trageser said his department has tried to correct the figures manually in the intervening months.
In recognition of the seriousness of the problems, Trageser said he has arranged for the federal government to refund $47,000 of the administrative money he recently returned. This money will be used to make substantial corrections to the computer system, he said.
He also said the state will try to expand its enrollment efforts by encouraging programs, such as a recent one in Prince George's County, that relies on volunteers to conduct special evening clinics to help certify women and children for the feeding program.
Houboult, of the Maryland Food Committee, criticized the state's belated efforts to seek out those eligible for help after dropping program participants this spring. "It's unconscionable to turn back money after restricting help for those who needed it," said Houboult.
Trageser, in reply, said only about 3,000 of the 6,300 women and children the state intended to drop actually were dropped because state officials later realized more money was available than first thought.