OPINION: Dunleavy is no anti-hunger advocate

In February, the Alaska Food Coalition — an advocacy body facilitated by the Food Bank of Alaska and made up of more than 120 nonprofits and faith-based organizations that feed people across the state — made its annual advocacy trip to Juneau. If you’ve been following the news about SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps), then you know that the situation has been dire. The state Division of Public Assistance (DPA) is now six months behind on processing SNAP applications and reapplications for thousands of Alaskans. Across the nation, SNAP provides nine times more meals than the entire charitable food sector, so when people can’t access this program, food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens are faced with the impossible task of scaling up their operations to fill a cavernous gap. They can’t keep up, but they do have to try. After all, hunger is a time-sensitive issue.

To many Alaskans’ great relief, in late February, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced $1.68 million in emergency funding for food banks across the state to purchase food for their pantry partners and grocery gift cards for people living in communities without pantries. In addition, Dunleavy added $54 million in the capitol budget to update the DPA’s grossly outdated IT system, which would also accommodate an online SNAP application. Alaska is currently one of only two states that do not provide this option.

The governor’s office also announced a commitment to change the requirement for those receiving SNAP to reapply only every year rather than every six months. Read this as follows: Up until now, and it’s not yet changed, the state has chosen to be more restrictive with SNAP administration than is required by the federal government and has therefore been electively creating more work for itself, while simultaneously apologizing for being unable to keep up with the resulting workload.

This announcement should feel like a victory. Advocates have been calling for these improvements for years. But it’s also a source of disillusionment. It seems that Dunleavy has successfully made himself the hero of a tragedy that he also created — and, as far as I can tell, he’s poised to get away with it.

In 2018, Dunleavy’s first year in office, advocates explained the negative consequences of cutting funds to the chronically understaffed and technologically unsophisticated DPA. Those advocates were quietly ignored. The DPA had 60 attritive losses of staff positions due to these budget cuts since 2021. The DPA’s recent hiring frenzy has resulted in 71 new hires, which is an eerily similar figure to the number of losses in the previous years, except with an extra dose of drama and inefficiency. Of course, there was a pandemic over this timeline, which, luckily for Dunleavy, has made for an exceptional scapegoat. He can stand with shoulders shrugged, hands in the air, apparently victimized by the nation’s staffing crisis. Meanwhile, Commissioner Adam Crum, who was responsible for overseeing the DPA during the same period, is now sitting over in the Department of Revenue, comfortably shielded from the consequences of his negligent leadership.

At its Latin root, advocacy means “to call to one’s aid.” I celebrate the efforts of anti-hunger advocates at this important moment. But I can’t quell the niggling feeling that their efforts have also been forced into the shape of political theater. Dunleavy is no anti-hunger advocate. He did not listen to the call until it was too late. To put it as plainly as possible: Quietly undermining the ability of government to administer lifesaving programs is an abuse of power. Sorry to state the obvious, but hunger doesn’t wait.

Claire Lubke is a writer and food systems advocate. She previously managed a food pantry in Anchorage.

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