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Prospect of massive cut to food stamp programs leaves Alaskans nervous

Suzanna Caldwell
Brian Walker sorts food in the Food Bank of Alaska warehouse in Anchorage. Big cuts may be coming to the federally funded program that provides meals to people and families whose budgets come up short, but big questions linger over how many Alaskans will see their benefits cut. Loren Holmes photo

As Congress looks to cut up to $40 billion from the federal food stamp program, Alaskans are bracing. But for what exactly?

“We don't know how bad it's going to be,” said Alan Buhdahl, executive director of Lutheran Social Services in Anchorage. “We're just trying to maintain and get food to people now.”

State and nonprofit social services in Alaska are all waiting to see what Congress decides to do with the program, which helps feed thousands of Alaskans each year. According to the state Division of Public Assistance, more than 93,000 Alaskans use food stamps, up 60 percent since 2008. Each month the program, funded solely through the federal government, provides $16 million worth of benefits to needy Alaskans.

The proposed $40 billion cut, which would extend over 10 years, narrowly passed the House Thursday. Consequently, an estimated 10,000 Alaskans could loose SNAP – officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- benefits.

But how? And when? At this point, it's hard to say.

“It's very confusing for us, too,” said Ron Kreher, director for the state Division of Public Assistance.

And for Kreher, the state and other social services in Alaska, the implications go deeper. How do you prepare for cuts when you don't know what's coming? And what are the downstream implications on other social services?

“It's really difficult to assess the impacts,” he said from Juneau last week. “You can try to prepare to other eventualities, and it won't be the ones to pass.”

Food insecurity in Alaska

In Alaska, a state known for its natural resource wealth, thousands of residents -- in both rural and urban Alaska -- struggle with food security.

According to the Food Bank of Alaska, the largest provider of food for the needy in the state, 106,000 Alaskans are food insecure, meaning they don't know where their next meal is coming from.

Several programs exist on the federal level to help alleviate that, though SNAP is arguably the best known and often most criticized. Nationally, the program feeds about 48 million people, a number that's grown since the 2008 recession.

With that, there have been mounting costs. The Congressional Research Service expects food programs to cost the U.S. Government $764 billion over the next 10 years if current policies continue.

While the $40 billion cut is just a 5.2 percent reduction of what the program is expected to spend during those 10 years, up to 6 million people may be affected across America.

Cuts will focus on those already eligible. Critics say it will reduce inefficiencies in the program, while advocates note that the program has already been lauded for its efficiency. In Alaska, the SNAP program was noted for being second best in the nation for its efficiency rate of 99.24 percent in July.

Impacts?

Food pantries across the state are already bracing for cuts. Budahl from Lutheran Social Services said he's reached out to numerous pastors in the Anchorage area to try to come up with creative solutions to feeding the region's needy. With the potential looming for less access to food stamps, he has asked churches to build more raised garden beds or look to their own pantries or gardens for help.

The Kenai Peninsula Food Bank has had its own gardens for more than 20 years, including the addition of hoop houses three years ago. Executive Director Linda Swarner said it’s been a help, but it remains to be seen what the eventual strain will be.

“Maybe your political views are conservative, and you believe there should be reform to food stamps, but are you prepared for an increase in people asking for help?” she said from Kenai Monday. “But are you prepared to deal with these people?”

Budahl said when people lose access to food, they face tough decisions. Do they pay rent or electricity or try to find more food? Often, the choices aren't easy.

“People will say, 'Well I have to feed my family.' I tell them, 'no, you'll be in much harder shape trying to feed your family if you don't have a place to cook,'” he said. “You're trying to give them some hope at the same time, (you tell them) 'you need to keep the roof over your head.'”

Budahl said he's continually impressed with how the faith-based communities cope under the increased strain. Still, he doesn't think the burden of feeding the needy should fall solely on that community.

“There are those in Congress who think the faith-based community can pick up the pieces, and the faith-based community is already doing a lot,” he said. “It's hard to ask for more.”

Congressional response

Alaska's sole congressman, Rep. Don Young, voted against the $40 billion in cuts Thursday, out of concerns for their scope. "Many Alaskans use SNAP to supplement their subsistence hunting and fishing,” Young said in a press release.  “Isolated villages in Alaska face unique and burdensome economic barriers, and SNAP often provides a critical lifeline for residents."

Where the farm bill goes from here is a question mark, as two bills move towards reconciliation. The White House has noted its opposition to the SNAP cuts, and indicated it would likely veto the bill.

Meanwhile, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, and chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told NPR that the House bill would “never see the light of day in the Senate.”

Sen. Mark Begich sided with Democrats in voting to reauthorize the farm bill this June (though it failed to pass through the house.) Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted against it, citing too many subsidies.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com