It’s been nearly six months since the Alaska Division of Public Assistance first began to fall behind on processing federal food stamp applications, leaving thousands of Alaskans still waiting for benefits to arrive now.
In rural Alaska, where food costs can be astronomical and food banks or pantries are rare, residents are experiencing particularly dire consequences from the unprecedented backlog, advocates say.
While Alaskans all over the state have been struggling as a result of the delays, officials with the Food Bank of Alaska said they have been contacted by people in multiple villages in rural Alaska — particularly in Western and Northwest Alaska — asking for assistance with an urgency that reflected the lack of a safety net in many of these communities.
Stories are emerging of people digging to the bottom of their freezers for scarce game, relying on friends and neighbors to fill empty shelves, and even in some rare cases requiring hospitalization for malnutrition.
“People are literally starving,” Ron Meehan, Food Bank of Alaska’s policy and advocacy manager, said this week.
“They’re calling and saying ‘We have nothing,’” Meehan said, referring to the handful of communities where people have reached out for help. “But the reality is that there are probably far more than that experiencing this, they just don’t know how to reach us.”
Food Bank staff said they are able to deliver food to struggling food pantries in some communities, but are limited by dwindling resources, rising food costs and fewer donations even as more people need help due to Alaska’s delays processing applications in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
“So many of our food banks and food pantries simply do not have the capacity to meet this need,” Meehan said.
‘My community is suffering’
In Stebbins, a Western Alaska village where nearly all residents qualify for food stamps and few have gotten them, three elders have needed to be hospitalized for malnutrition, said city administrator Daisy Lockwood Katcheak.
The community, located roughly 120 miles southeast of Nome and home to more than 600 people, has suffered multiple devastating events in a short span of time, which Katcheak said have compounded on each other in combination with the SNAP delays.
“We make-shifted a little store that’s been cut down to a third, and only sells shelf-stable foods,” Katcheak said Thursday. “On top of that, there’s such a delay with the food stamps, so my people are further being impacted by that.”
In recent months, Stebbins officials have had to rely on food donations from the Red Cross, the Food Bank of Alaska and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to keep residents fed.
“I just requested more food for our community because our people are not receiving the nutritional value,” she said. “My elderly and my children are being impacted. My community is suffering.”
The last bone
In Kivalina, 72-year-old Becky Norton struggled for months to feed her family of nine. There are no food banks or pantries in this largely Iñupiat village on a barrier island along the Chukchi Sea.
Norton’s family typically receives around $1,800 a month in SNAP benefits for her family that includes her three young grandchildren, she said.
Norton filled out her recertification application in November, and by January, still hadn’t heard anything back from the state’s Division of Public Assistance regarding the status of her application.
While Norton waited for her SNAP benefit application to be approved, she said she searched through her freezer for any caribou remnants from past hunts — a once plentiful but now scarce food source for her family with the decline of local herds.
“I found in the bottom of my freezer a single leg bone, enough to make soup,” she said.
Meanwhile, Norton said, she waited on benefits and budgeted carefully to keep the family’s monthly Social Security payments from running out. She knew that if she became truly desperate, she could post in a local Facebook group to ask for assistance from her neighbors.
“We are a caring community,” she said. “So if we know that someone is struggling, people will make little care packages. Not much, but to help them get by.”
Norton finally got help expediting her application from Alaska Legal Services. Within a few days, SNAP funds were deposited in her account.
Her sister, who applied for benefits around the same time she did, still hasn’t received any word from the state about the application she submitted over four months ago.
Norton herself is still waiting on her state application for energy assistance, one of several programs also experiencing delays. She applied for that in September, before the cold arrived. Last week, she got an electric bill for $423.
Significant delays continue
The extent of the food stamp application processing problem first surfaced in late December when multiple Alaska news outlets reported on major delays within the public assistance division, which processes the applications.
Thousands of Alaskans already been waiting months to receive SNAP benefits reported spending hours on hold with the state’s virtual call center only to be told there was nothing to be done to speed up the process. Many calling about food stamps are also experiencing delays for other types of public assistance, including senior benefits, Medicaid — and heating assistance.
State officials attributed the public assistance processing delays to a staff shortage, a cyberattack that disrupted online services for months, and an influx of recertification applications in early fall when an emergency pandemic-era program expired in September. The program made it easier for Alaskans to receive maximum benefits without annual recertifications. It ended with the state’s emergency declaration, which wound down in July.
Last month, Heidi Hedberg, the state health department’s commissioner-designee, said the department was hiring workers via an emergency contract to focus solely on food stamps and Medicaid as a way to get the agency back up to speed.
Since November, the department has hired 71 new staff members “in various stages of training,” department spokeswoman Sonya Senkowsky said in an email this week.
But as March approaches, the backlog still hasn’t been cleared. In an email this week, Hedberg said the state is still processing SNAP applications received in October. And on the front lines, advocates at the Food Bank say the majority of their clients still aren’t getting benefits in a timely way.
Staff with the Food Bank of Alaska this week, however, said they’re still working with clients whose applications are marked as received in September with no action taken since.
“We’re continuing to see significant delays in processing,” said Magen James, the organization’s SNAP coordinator.
‘Nothing we can do’
As the backlog stretches on, Food Bank of Alaska staff describe staffers exhausted after months of dealing with people going hungry around the state with limited access to food resources.
“The secondary trauma of dealing with people that are starving every single day has been taking such a toll on my staff,” James said.
The organization is struggling to keep up with the demand, Food Bank officials say. Even in places on the road system, like Soldotna, residents dealing not only with delayed benefits but inflation say the high price of fuel has made it difficult or impossible to drive into town to visit a food pantry, according to Greg Meyer, with the Food Bank in that community.
The organization has been driving out to smaller communities to distribute food in response but the demand hasn’t let up, and resources are limited: Meyer said the food bank there has gone through about 75% of its stored food since September, and has seen nearly a 50% increase in the number of families seeking food assistance each day.
The impact of rising food and fuel costs on top of delayed federal benefits has been particularly hard on elders and single parents, said Carey Atchak, food security coordinator for Bethel Community Services Foundation.
Atchak, who helps manage the city’s food pantry, said it’s been nearly impossible to keep up with the demand.
“I purchase about $1,000 worth of products on Monday, and by Wednesday, everything has been depleted,” she said.
The charity sector is not set up to replace federal benefits — Meehan said that SNAP benefits typically provide more than 10 times as much food as is typically distributed by food banks. Over the last year, the Food Bank of Alaska also experienced a drop in the amount of food it has been able to provide, he said.
In places far from a food bank or pantry, like the Yukon River community of Mountain Village, staff said they feel a sense of helplessness.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in the amount of clients from Mountain Village specifically asking about their SNAP benefits, and they’re still not getting approved, and then asking for food, and there’s no food bank or pantry or anything in that region,” James said. “And unfortunately, I had to tell people that they’re going to have to wait. There was nothing that we can do.”