Alaska News

State clears big chunk of food stamp backlog, but thousands of Alaskans are still waiting for benefits

Alaska’s monthslong delay in disbursing federally funded food stamps to thousands of families still isn’t over — compelling many Alaskans to continue depending on food banks and pantries for emergency food assistance while they wait.

While the state reported that on average, new applications for food stamps and other public assistance benefits filed this month were being processed within 30 days, many Alaskans who applied for benefits as early as last fall were still waiting for their applications to be approved.

“We are definitely seeing improvements in people getting benefits much quicker,” said Cara Durr, chief of advocacy and public policy with the Food Bank of Alaska. “But there’s still a pretty substantial backlog. And we’re still seeing really high levels of need.”

The latest count of the backlog indicated that more than 7,000 applications filed between November and April still haven’t been processed, according to Deb Etheridge, director of the Alaska Division of Public Assistance, which administers federal food aid. That’s down from around 14,000 applications that the state reported were part of the backlog as of February, according to Nick Feronti, an attorney with the Northern Justice Project.

In Alaska, more than 92,000 people rely on food stamp benefits, also referred to as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. About a third are children, and most have incomes below the federal poverty line.

At the state’s public assistance division, a team dedicated solely to clearing the backlog has been processing around 500 backlogged applications a week, Etheridge said. That means there’s still months of work left before the backlog is fully cleared, even as the state continues to work on hiring more staff and making other key fixes.

“It’s really disheartening to be at this point and to see that there are still so many people waiting and in need,” said Saima Akhtar, an attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. Akhtar helped bring forward a class-action lawsuit in January, jointly with the Northern Justice Project, on behalf of Alaskans who’d gone months without food aid.


“This is still such a crisis, and the need is so great,” she said.

This month, the only backlogged applications the state was able to process came from people who met the state’s narrow criteria for an expedited application: They had to have less than $150 in cash at the time of application, and less than $100 in any other kind of resources, including income or a savings account.

Akhtar said the state’s approach of processing new applications even as it struggles to still work through the backlogged applications has some logic to it, even though it may seem unfair to people who have been waiting for months.

“Clearing front-end applications is what’s going to keep them from adding to the backlog,” Akhtar said.

The state attributes the continued delays largely to an antiquated IT system that processes the applications and won’t be replaced until 2025. It seems there are no quick fixes to clearing the backlog, state officials say.

“If I had a magic wand, I could fix this whole thing,” Etheridge said.

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The delays at the public assistance division first surfaced in late December, when multiple Alaska news outlets reported that thousands of Alaskans had already been waiting months to receive SNAP and other public benefits.

Since December, the director of the Division of Public Assistance has been replaced. Ten Alaskans have filed a lawsuit alleging that the delays were a violation of federal law, and the state has received a stern warning from the federal government. The delays have taken a particularly harsh toll on communities in rural Alaska, where food costs are already high and food banks and pantries rare.

In Stebbins, a Western Alaska village where nearly all residents qualify for food stamps, three elders needed to be hospitalized for malnutrition this winter, according to city administrator Daisy Lockwood Katcheak.

Katcheak said in an email this week that some community members in Stebbins are still waiting on their benefits after all these months. Others have recently received backdated benefits after “well over seven months” of waiting, she wrote.

“I have emotional moms when they finally receive their benefits,” she wrote. In the meantime, the village has received food donations from the state, has applied for a hot lunch program for children, is working on implementing a community garden, and has received private donations of baby food and formula during a time of extreme need.

“I have live angels in the back scenes assisting my community,” she wrote.

The state’s delays have put added pressure on Alaska’s nonprofit sector, which advocates emphasize is not equipped to replace SNAP benefits. In February, an order by Gov. Mike Dunleavy redirected $1.68 million previously earmarked for disaster relief to the Food Bank of Alaska to help bring emergency food to communities in need.

The organization has used those funds to distribute more than 300,000 pounds of food to dozens of communities around Alaska, said Anthony Reinert, director of food programs at the Food Bank of Alaska.

That food has been a welcome relief, Reinert said — for some communities, this was the first time their shelves had been full in months. The funding allowed the food bank to distribute food in communities “we’ve never reached before, where aid is needed but doesn’t often flow,” he said. But the aid is still just “a drop in the bucket” compared to the need that is there, he said.

“It’s really, really clear to see that really no amount of food can replace the SNAP program, because the cost and logistics burden on moving actual pounds of food into rural and remote places is so expensive and so time consuming that the efficiency of the SNAP program is unparalleled in getting people the food they need,” Reinert said.


Overall progress clearing the backlog has been slow but steady. In early May, the state was able to finish processing backlogged recertification applications, for people who were already receiving benefits through the program, Etheridge said.

The remaining applications left in the backlog are for people who submitted new applications for food stamp benefits during the fall, winter and spring.

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Akhtar and the other attorneys involved in the class-action lawsuit over food stamp delays recently agreed to pause the suit for six months while the state agreed to clear at least 50% of the backlog by the end of October. Akhtar said her team has been meeting with the state monthly to make sure they’re staying on track.

Akhtar and Food Bank of Alaska officials applauded the steps the state has taken to address the problem, even as the backlog has stretched on longer than anyone hoped.

The state “is making strides, they’re working hard,” Durr said. “They are working on a lot of policy suggestions that we have put forward.”

Beginning next week, many of the state’s public assistance offices — in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Wasilla — will transition from being open to the public three days a week to five. An online application for SNAP benefits is expected to go live in December. Forty new staff members are in the process of being hired or recruited for.

“These are good steps, and the agency is focusing on a number of the things that it really does need to be doing right now to get through this, and those are heartening to me,” Akhtar said.

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