RALEIGH -

Officials at the state Department Health and Human Services say they have made significant progress in clearing a backlog of food stamp applications ahead of a federal deadline next week.

Scores of state and county employees worked through weekend to reduce the backlog from more than 23,000 cases on January 23 to about 6,700 as of Monday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave North Carolina until February 10 to process food stamp applications and renewals that have been pending for more than 90 days or face the loss of millions in federal funding.

If the state fails, the $88 million in federal funding the state receives annually to manage its food stamp program could be terminated on March 12.

"Citizens of North Carolina that need help putting food on the table are not receiving the basic level of responsiveness and quality of service that they deserve form their government," wrote Robin D. Bailey, Jr., regional administrator for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. "Continued delays create undue hardship for the most vulnerable citizens of North Carolina," Bailey Jr. said.

The applications are supposed to be processed by law within 30 days.

The state has struggled for months to process tens of thousands of food stamp applications due to a faulty update with its NC FAST software. The NC FAST computer system was intended to streamline the process for applying and receiving government social service benefits.