Alaska News

A massive state-funded food shipment is expected to bring only temporary relief amid Alaska’s ongoing food stamp crisis

Nearly $1.7 million worth of state-funded bulk food is headed to communities around Alaska — 45 tons of canned goods intended to make up for a backlog in federal food stamps that’s left thousands still waiting on benefits.

But officials with Food Bank of Alaska, the nonprofit coordinating the distribution, say while they welcome the relief, it amounts to only a temporary fix given the growing demand they’re seeing since state processing delays started last fall.

“This is a small drop in the bucket,” said Anthony Reinert, director of food programs at Food Bank of Alaska. “We anticipate this food to maybe get us into the early parts of June. But that would be optimistic.”

More than 80,000 Alaskans, or about one in nine, rely on the food stamp benefits. About a third are children. The processing backlog at the Division of Public Assistance has strained food bank resources across the state. Delays have taken a particularly harsh toll on communities in rural Alaska, where food costs are already high and food banks and pantries rare.

On Thursday, hastily purchased rows of cans of quick oats, corn, spaghetti and Vienna sausages lined a Food Bank of Alaska warehouse in Anchorage, part of the massive shipment of relief aid to be ferried via trucks, boats and planes to dozens of communities on and off the road system, from Anchorage and Soldotna to Kotzebue and Dillingham.

The money came from an order by Gov. Mike Dunleavy in late February to redirect the $1.68 million previously earmarked for disaster relief to help address major delays by the state in processing applications for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The Food Bank of Alaska and partners purchased about 12 full truckloads of food over just a few weeks to help feed families still waiting for their SNAP applications to be approved. Nearly 20 communities will also get $5,000 in direct funds.


Such a large distribution in such a short time has been a massive undertaking for the food bank, which in recent days doubled the amount of food it normally ships to community pantries and food banks around the state, officials say.

“We’ve never moved this much food from our facility in such a short time,” Reinert said.

Long waits, new need

As of late March, 2,000 Alaskans were still waiting for benefits renewal applications from December to be processed, according to Sonya Senkowsky, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Health, which includes the public assistance division. Health Commissioner-designee Heidi Hedberg has estimated it will take until at least June to completely clear the backlog.

At the Food Bank of Alaska, clients are telling staff they are still waiting on benefits from September and October.

In Soldotna, the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank is still seeing up to three new families every day, an increase that’s depleting already scant supplies. Most of that facility’s stored food had been depleted by mid-February, said Ron Meehan, the organization’s policy and advocacy manager.

While Alaskans all over the state have been struggling as a result of the SNAP delays, Food Bank staff said last month they had 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 food banks and pantries in many of these communities.

Nineteen of the communities that requested help received $5,000 each in direct funding, allowing residents to buy food locally “and support the local economy too,” said Meehan.

According to Meehan, seven communities that don’t have a food bank or pantry have also been able to request help thanks to the funding: Metlakatla, Whale Pass, St. Michael, Akhiok, Brevig Mission, Pilot Station and Russian Mission.

Food Bank officials say though the relief is welcome, shipping bulk food is an inefficient, costly replacement for SNAP benefits. The shelf-stable items being shipped out are also not as healthy as fresh food like produce, dairy and eggs.

Staff at the organization say they bought only generic food brands to save money and sped up the process by making each shipment exactly the same instead of allowing communities to customize the types of food they will receive.

Still, getting the food out to rural parts of the state is costly and slow, David Cornwall, the Food Bank’s logistics manager, said Thursday. Shipping costs are sometimes two to three times the cost of the actual food.

“The food leaves here, goes to a hub airport, and gets transferred to a single-engine little airplane,” Cornwall said. “You can’t imagine how costly that can be.”

Depending on the weather, it can take up to two weeks for the food to arrive in many villages, he said. “I’ve put food on barges before, that have had to go to Seattle first and then turn around and come back just to get to Wrangell. And that’s the cheapest way I can ship them.”

‘Still a crisis’

The state has attributed the processing delays to staffing shortages at the public assistance division, a 2021 cyberattack that disrupted online services, an outdated system and a flood of recertification applications. But many of those issues are longstanding, as outlined in a 2018 investigation conducted by the state ombudsman following repeated complaints about public assistance processing delays.

The nearly $1.7 million in state funding was initially earmarked for food purchases by Alaska’s emergency management office during natural disasters, but had so far been unused.

Last week, the Alaska Legislature passed a fast-track budget bill intended to help address problems with the state’s food-aid program for poor Alaskans and other immediate concerns.

House Bill 79, proposed by the governor, transfers $3.1 million from the state’s Medicaid program to the Division of Public Assistance and allows the division to use $3.7 million in additional federal funding available for food aid. The bill earned near unanimous support in the state House and Senate before Dunleavy signed it into law Friday.


State health officials say the department is working on hiring additional staff to address the food stamp application processing backlog. The department plans to launch an online benefits application by the end of the year. Dunleavy has also proposed modernizing the eligibility enrollment system, last updated 40 years ago.

“Those are all encouraging steps,” Meehan said Thursday. “But it’s still a crisis. And I think the first step we have to take is recognizing that it’s a crisis. And the Department of Health and the Legislature, I think, recognize that now.”

Annie Berman

Annie Berman is a reporter covering health care, education and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. She previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in San Francisco before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at