A program that allows some rural residents to use food stamps to purchase hunting and fishing equipment has quietly been available in Alaska for at least three decades. But is anyone using it?
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game conducted a pilot survey in order to find out.
The survey was focused on four lower Yukon River communities and how they utilize SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps — for purchasing subsistence gear.
The results showed that participation in the gear-buying program was low, according to Marylynne Kostick, research analyst at the Division of Subsistence and co-author of the report.
Kostick said the research is part of a larger survey done every year by the Division of Subsistence. This year the survey included questions in a few villages on whether they used SNAP benefits for gear. The results were presented at a health conference in Anchorage this month.
Across the villages, 342 households were surveyed. One-third of those households reported receiving SNAP benefits. A small portion of those said they used the program to purchase gear.
In Kotlik, 4 percent of people purchased gear using SNAP, according to the survey. In Marshall, population 350, it was 7 percent. In Mountain Village, only 0.8 percent.
According to the survey, 95 percent of rural households use subsistence resources like hunting, fishing and gathering for meeting their food needs. Approximately 25 percent of all food stamp recipients live in rural Alaska.
Kostick said subsistence is an economical way to get nutrition-dense foods.
"If a program is promoting nutrition and giving funds to support household food security or nutrition in general, then providing those funds and allowing funds to be used in such a way would be a benefit to the program and the household and the program's mission," Kostick said.
The federally funded SNAP program is administered by the state. Only certain rural communities are eligible to purchase gear. Eligibility is determined by a town's access to grocery stores and transportation on paved roads, ferry or train.
Urban areas like Anchorage are exempt, and so are villages like Tanacross and Kake that have access to the road or ferry systems.
There are strict restrictions on the kinds of equipment that can be purchased with the benefits, according to Christina Cross, public assistance program officer with the Division of Public Assistance.
Nets, harpoons, fishing line and hunting knives are OK, but fuel, bullets, firearms and explosives are prohibited.
Alaska appears to be the only state that allows for purchase of subsistence gear using SNAP benefits, according to Cross.
She said didn't know exactly when the state began offering SNAP benefits for subsistence purchases, but that division records show the program goes back to at least 1983. Given the age of the program, Cross wasn't sure why items like bullets were not deemed eligible.
"It's the practical equipment you would need to do it but not the impractical things that might be outside of the actual equipment needed," Cross said.
"But they must have had some major discussions about (firearms and bullets) at the time."
Kostick said it wasn't clear why participation in the program was so low, because the survey did not ask questions about that. She and fellow researcher Jennifer Johnson, WIC nutrition coordinator with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, plan to do a larger survey looking at the causes this year.
"Our next round of questions is really diving into what is driving folks' decisions to purchase gear," Kostick said. "Whether they need it or if their money runs out before they can purchase that equipment. Just getting more into the 'whys.'"