Alaska News

In 1 year, Alaska saw largest drop-off from federal food stamp program of any state

Alaska saw a drop in food stamp recipients over the past year that was far larger than any other state.

While more than half of states actually had an increase in SNAP beneficiaries, among those that saw a decline, none came anywhere close to the 69% drop in participation Alaska experienced through this spring. Behind Alaska, Maryland saw a 21% decrease, Arkansas saw a 19% decrease and New Jersey saw a 14% decrease between March 2022 and March 2023.

Those numbers, from the most recent publicly available data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, show the full scale of a crisis that left tens of thousands of Alaska’s neediest without critical food aid for months on end, amid a massive backlog in applications at the Alaska Division of Public Assistance that still hasn’t been fully resolved, nearly a year later.

In March 2022, over 96,000 Alaskans were enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, more colloquially known as food stamps.

A year later, that number had dropped to just over 29,000.

“Seeing the numbers, and seeing just that huge decline quantified, it’s a bit shocking,” said Cara Durr, chief of advocacy and public policy at the Food Bank of Alaska.

State health officials say the drop can be largely attributed to the backlog, which began last August, leaving tens of thousands of Alaskans needing assistance waiting many months for the state to process their annual recertification and new applications to the program.


As of this week, the backlog still contained over 7,000 applications that had been received between November and March, Deb Etheridge, the division’s director, said Friday.

In addition to the backlog, Durr said the dramatic drop likely also reflected the challenges that many Alaskans were experiencing during the winter and fall with getting through to the state’s then-overwhelmed call center for help with their applications. The call center was at the time reporting hourslong wait times.

“I think these numbers speak to access issues that go beyond the backlog,” she said.

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In Alaska, around one in eight residents were enrolled in the food stamps program before the backlog. More than two-thirds of SNAP recipients in Alaska have children in their families, and most have incomes below the federal poverty line.

Etheridge said it was important to note that the 2022 SNAP enrollment numbers were somewhat elevated compared to prior years due to the pandemic-era provisions that made it so Alaskans enrolled in the program were able to automatically renew each year, without needing to prove their continued eligibility.

The drop-off in participants began last August, around the time the state received an influx of recertification applications in advance of Alaska’s pandemic-era Emergency Allotment Program expiring in September.

The program had made it easier for Alaskans to receive maximum benefits without annual recertifications, and that ended when the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration did.

State officials have also attributed the backlog to that influx, as well as to a staff shortage at the division and a cyberattack.

But advocates have pointed out that many of the problems that led to the backlog were longstanding. In 2018, the Alaska state ombudsman investigated recurring complaints about the division related to similar delays in application processing, chronic understaffing and challenges recipients were having getting through to staff.

The ombudsman’s report recommended that the division increase its staffing. Instead, the public assistance program lost 100 positions in 2021.

Over the last year, the delays have triggered a lawsuit, a stern warning from the federal government, a one-time funding boost from Gov. Mike Dunleavy and a push by the Food Bank of Alaska to get emergency food out to rural Alaska, where the need was particularly great.

State health officials have said that they’ve been working through the backlog as fast as they can and aggressively recruiting more staff to address an ongoing staff shortage at the state’s public assistance division.

They’ve requested and received a funding promise for an overhaul of their antiquated IT system, onboarded dozens of new employees and extended the days and hours physical Division of Public Assistance offices are open to the public.

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They also say they have assigned their most experienced eligibility technicians to focus on the backlog and are working on launching an online application for SNAP and other benefits by the end of the year. Most new applications to SNAP in recent weeks are being processed in a timely way, the state says.

Etheridge said by May, the number of SNAP participants in the state had risen to over 64,000 as the backlog gradually shrunk.


Durr said Friday that while demand at Food Bank pantries and distribution sites around the state continues to be high, the situation is improved from where it was at the height of the backlog.

“Things still felt really bad in March,” she said. “We still had a lot of clients struggling, a lot caught in the backlog. It didn’t feel like a lot of progress was being made because, of course, progress takes a while. I think since March, we’ve definitely seen really positive trends.”

“We’re working really hard to get out of this backlog,” Etheridge said. “And so these numbers we’re hoping will be really different in just a few months.”

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