Southeast Alaska Food Bank patrons have doubled since last November. Director Chris Schapp said demand continues as high as it’s ever been. A major driver has been the monthslong backlog for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, in the Division of Public Assistance.
“We’ve just been inundated with people needing help,” he said. “A week doesn’t go by where I don’t see new faces.”
By his count, Southeast Alaska Food Bank is on track to distribute more than half a million pounds of food in Juneau this year — a record that reflects what it takes to feed about 450 people a week. He said the food bank hasn’t run out of food or had to scale back services yet, thanks in part to aid from the state.
It’s been about two months since Gov. Mike Dunleavy reallocated $1.7 million from other state programs to bolster depleted food banks and slake a growing statewide demand for food. The action was in response to the public disclosure of the food stamp backlog that left thousands of Alaskans waiting months for aid. State officials have said it will take time to get SNAP back on track. That leaves organizations like the Southeast Alaska Food Bank to attempt to meet an overwhelming need — the organization has spent about two-thirds of the $150,000 in state money it got in March.
“We’re still buying food and trying to keep our store and our warehouse stocked as much as we can. But it’s going out almost as fast as it comes in,” Schapp said.
The same dynamic is playing out at food banks across the state. While food from the state’s response is reaching Alaskans in need, people at food banks say the demand is as high as ever.
The time it’s taking to meet the demand is raising concerns in the Legislature.
On the House floor this week, Rep. Alyse Galvin, I-Anchorage, said there’s more work to do if Alaska’s most vulnerable residents are still hungry.
A swing and a miss
On the House floor on Wednesday, Galvin used the baseball analogy “a swing and a miss” to describe the state’s response to the food stamp crisis.
“The governor tried to do something,” said Galvin, in reference to the money Dunleavy reallocated to ease the burden on food banks. “And it’s important to note that it was a good swing. But if you do the math, we’re still not even anywhere close to being whole again.”
Galvin said the Legislature has approved spending millions to update the Division of Public Assistance’s computer system, which it says is partly to blame for the backlog, but she wants the body to take a longer view. She pointed to when the Legislature approved cutting more than a hundred jobs from the division just a couple of years ago.
“We need to remember that some of the big decisions that are made here have implications over and over again in later innings that we may not see right now, but that are really important to the whole of the work we have for the whole of the game,” she said, continuing her baseball metaphor.
The state’s Division of Public Assistance is in the process of hiring and training 30 new employees as part of state action to correct the backlog.
Galvin said she’s having conversations with her colleagues about what more they could do.
“It’s going to take much more than just one legislator,” she said. “But yeah, how can we pull together our energy and do something better than this Band-Aid that seemingly hasn’t fixed the situation?”
‘Not designed to replace SNAP’
The bulk of the money Dunleavy allocated for food aid to address the crisis went to the Food Bank of Alaska, the statewide body serving local anti-hunger programs. The organization distributed 185,000 pounds of food to replenish food banks across the state over the last month and is on track to roughly triple that number. Meehan said their partner organizations have reported serving nearly 200,000 Alaskans.
“Our partners continue to see elevated need,” said Ron Meehan, Food Bank of Alaska’s policy and advocacy manager. “The anti-hunger network was not designed to replace SNAP.”
He estimated SNAP provides at least 10 times as much food as the food bank network does. Food banks reported they didn’t have enough food on hand to help their patrons before the infusion of state funds, Meehan said.
The new program doesn’t fully meet the need, Meehan said, but added that it was not intended to fill the gap.
“Having additional appropriations for direct food purchasing would make a huge difference,” he said.
He said the biggest help would be clearing the food stamp backlog.
Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.