CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Graylon Sturdivant of Charlotte was laid off more than a year ago, but he and his wife were still making ends meet until this summer, when her hours at work were cut by half.

It didn’t take long before the family of four was unable to buy enough food.

But then someone told him about the Benefit Bank, a free Web-based program that takes less than 20 minutes to reveal all the state and federal benefits available to a person in need, from Medicaid to student aid.

Organizers say about $1.8 billion of these benefits go unclaimed in North Carolina alone because people in need don’t realize they’re qualified.

The Benefit Bank is a “one-stop shop” for benefits, because people like the 40-year-old Sturdivant can sit in an office and apply for help from multiple programs at the same time, via a computer.

He found out he qualified for about $300 a month in food stamps, which covers nearly half the money missing from his wife’s paycheck.

“I’m the type who is always out looking for a job, and I thought there were people worse off than me who needed those food stamps,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I’d rather be in a position to feed my family.”

Michael Marsicano of the Foundation for the Carolinas is among the program’s champions. He pointed out last week that states take a hit when benefits go unclaimed, as the money is typically reallocated elsewhere.

“For every $5 spent in food-stamp benefits, there is a $9 economic impact,” he said. “That means jobs in grocery stores and distribution and more sales taxes collected by local government.”

The foundation thinks enough of the program that it offered to lend it office space, handle its money and provide other forms of support.

In its first five months in the Charlotte area, the program helped 458 people. Included were 353 who didn’t realize they qualified for a total of $800,000 in food-stamp aid.

A coalition of donors has stepped forward with money, including the Leon Levine Foundation, Bank of America Foundation, C.D. Spangler Foundation, Duke Energy Foundation, the Duke Endowment and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Stimulus dollars have also been used to hire counselors at some sites.

Lisa MacDonald is the project manager as well as a former displaced worker, having been laid off by one of Charlotte’s big banks. She says the Benefit Bank will be particularly helpful to the “newly poor” who are experiencing unemployment for the first time due to the recession.

Pride may keep them from asking about such things as food stamps, she said. With that in mind, Benefit Banks have been placed in libraries, schools and houses of worship.

“Many of the middle class don’t understand the system. If they got laid off and their unemployment is running out, they may not know if they are eligible for food stamps, even if they are working part time,” MacDonald said. “You may not be willing to go to the Department of Social Services to stand in line, but you might be willing to go to your local library or to a pastor to ask.”

Some of the benefits available through the Benefit Bank include Medicare, Medicaid, drug prescription aid, food stamps, student aid, child care subsidies, child tax credits, utilities assistance and tax credits on federal and state income tax returns.

The Crisis Assistance Ministry, which provides rent and utilities help, is among the agencies that played a key role in the pilot program, helping 300 people. The Charlotte agency is now a Benefit Bank site.

“We have people coming to us for aid who have thousands of dollars of benefits awarded to them, but they haven’t retrieved them,” said Carol Hardison, executive director. If Crisis Assistance can point those families toward that money, she said, it saves agency dollars for others in need.

Community leader Sally Robinson came to the Foundation for the Carolinas with the idea.

“To me, it’s the best new idea for a service program we’ve had in a long time,” Robinson said. “It will help these folks not feel so embarrassed to really claim what they are eligible for.”