ST. LOUIS (AP) — The number of people on food stamp rolls in Missouri has dropped since the state switched to a centralized processing system and slashed most in-person help for people seeking public assistance.

State officials say the new system is designed to make the application process more efficient but social service advocates said the process makes it harder to sign up and easier to get thrown off food stamp rolls, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported ( ).

People used to apply for social services programs by meeting with a caseworker in one of the family support offices spread across the state. Now they mail in paperwork or drop it off at a family support office and wait for a telephone call from a caseworker. But advocates say the process often leads to missed calls, follow-up conversations with a call center operator who doesn't know case details, voicemails left for caseworkers and a denial of benefits when the 30-day deadline hits.

The state must interview all applicants to verify eligibility.

Since the reorganization was launched July 1, the state's food stamp rolls have declined by 31,452 — to 896,475 in October. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program covers families with gross incomes of no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $30,615 for a family of four.

The number of food stamp rejections was 44 percent higher this September compared to last September. Among the 21,001 denials this September, 7,001 people were rejected for "failure to complete the interview," the Post-Dispatch reported.

One factor for the decline is an improving economy, said Department of Social Services spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel, who said food stamp participation and unemployment in Missouri "both seem to be moving downward."

Nonprofit agencies say it's unrealistic to expect applicants to understand the complex forms on their own.

Glenn Koenen said he has seen people with master's degrees struggle to decipher the four-page food stamp application. He used to run a food pantry in Valley Park and now is the hunger task force chairman for the Missouri Association for Social Welfare.

Applicants with questions must call a toll-free number and leave their name and number. The state set up information centers in St. Joseph and Jefferson City to field those calls. Another is planned in St. Louis County.

People sometimes miss the caseworker's return call, said Bradley Harmon, president of Local 6355 of the Communication Workers of America, which represents social services employees. That can lead to playing "phone-tag" with caseworkers, he said.

Woelfel said applicants can still get in-person help from Family Support staffers "if a customer needs to be seen." But Harmon said applicants are generally encouraged to fill out the forms and leave them in a drop box.