Funding is being directed to help stock Alaska food pantries as part of a broader effort to address a state backlog in processing food stamp benefit applications.
Major delays by the state in processing applications for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have impacted thousands of Alaskans who depend on the benefits to feed their families, and strained food bank resources across the state. The state has attributed the processing delays to staffing shortages, a 2021 cyberattack that disrupted online services, an outdated system and a flood of recertification applications.
The unprecedented backlog has taken a particularly harsh toll on communities in rural Alaska, where food costs are already higher and food banks are rare.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy redirected about $1.7 million previously earmarked for food security efforts to help address the current need, Heidi Hedberg, the state health department’s commissioner-designee, told reporters Monday. Alaska Department of Health officials worked with food bank leaders to determine the best use of the funds, she said.
The money is intended to go toward the bulk purchase of food to stock food pantries and for cards that can be used by Alaskans to buy food at local grocery stores. It will also support some school programs, according to the state health department.
The money was previously intended for the state emergency management office to purchase shelf-stable food supplies for disaster situations. But those purchases had not yet been made, and the money was redirected, a spokesperson for the health department, Shirley Young, said in an email.
“We’re thankful and encouraged that the administration and Department of Health have taken this step to provide immediate relief to struggling Alaskans,” said Ron Meehan, the Food Bank of Alaska’s policy and advocacy manager. “One of the ongoing concerns that we’ve had in addressing the SNAP backlog was finding ways to quickly meet the current need, and this will help us meet some of that.”
Meehan, who joined Hedberg on a video conference Monday, could not say how far the aid might stretch. He said it will depend in part on transportation and distribution costs, noting that getting supplies to more rural, remote areas of Alaska is more expensive. Many Alaska communities aren’t connected to the main road system.
Meehan indicated there were transportation organizations that had agreed to help with the effort.
The Department of Health, as part of its broader efforts to address the backlog, has said it also is hiring additional staff and that it plans to launch an online benefits application by the end of the year. Dunleavy has proposed as part of his budget funding to modernize the eligibility enrollment system.