EAGLE RIVER, Alaska (AP) — Thousands of Alaskans who depend on government assistance have waited months for food stamp benefits, exacerbating a long-standing hunger crisis worsened by the pandemic, inflation and the remnants of a typhoon that wiped out stockpiles of fish and fishing equipment.
The backlog, which began last August, is especially concerning in a state where communities in far-flung areas, including Alaska Native villages, are often not connected by roads. They must have food shipped in by barge or airplane, making the cost of even basic goods exorbitant. Around 13% of the state's roughly 735,000 residents received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — or SNAP — in July, before the troubles began.
“People are struggling and having to make choices of getting food or getting heating fuel,” said Daisy Lockwood Katcheak, city administrator in Stebbins, an Alaska Native village of 634 people, more than 400 miles (644 kilometers) northwest of Anchorage.
Faced with food shortages and rampant inflation, the city recently used $38,000 in funds raised for a children's spring carnival to buy residents basic supplies. The community on Alaska's western coast is also reeling from the remnants of a typhoon that destroyed a critical stockpile of fish and fishing boats at the same time problems with the food stamp program were emerging.
“My people are suffering first hand,” said Katcheak.
Alaska lawmakers have responded to the state's sluggish response, as lawsuits have alleged failures in the state's administration of the food stamps and a program that provides aid to low-income Alaskans who are blind, elderly or have disabilities.
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy authorized $1.7 million to provide relief to communities in a state that is almost 2 1/2 times the size of Texas. Lawmakers approved emergency funding to hire staff to handle the crush of cases as food banks have reported the highest level of demand they have seen.
“We know a lot of people that are not eating multiple meals a day; they’ve drawn down to maybe a single meal,” said Anthony Reinert, director of programs at the Food Bank of Alaska. There has always “been a baseline of hunger in Alaska. But it’s spread and expanded pretty significantly in the last six months.”
The hunger crisis in Alaska stems from a perfect storm of cascading events, compounded by staffing and technology issues within the state health department.
During the pandemic, the regular renewal process for SNAP benefits — a federal program administered by states — was suspended. Problems emerged after the state ended its public health emergency last July and recertification requirements for SNAP were reinstituted, resulting in a flood of applications.
A cyberattack that targeted the state health department in 2021 complicated Alaska's ability to process the applications, said Heidi Hedberg, who was appointed health commissioner late last year. Employees who were supposed to upgrade key department computer systems were pulled away to address the attack, leaving the upgrade work undone. But 100 positions that were set to be eliminated due to anticipated efficiencies with the upgrade nonetheless were still cut, Hedberg said.
In January, the backlog of applicants seeking to renew food assistance benefits had reached a high of 9,104. Officials hope to clear the recertification backlog this month and turn their attention to thousands of new applications, according to the department.
“This is not how SNAP systems are supposed to work, period,” said Nick Feronti, an attorney representing Alaskans who are suing over delays and other concerns with the food stamp program.
Stephanie Duboc is still waiting for assistance after submitting her application in December. She volunteers at the Chugiak-Eagle River Food Pantry in suburban Anchorage, and said the food she receives from the pantry is essential.
“It would be a huge impact on my family financially,” without that help, she said.
Among those suing is Rose Carney, 68, who receives $172 a month in assistance.
Carney said she received a letter in September saying her benefits had been renewed — but a month later, got another letter saying her application was due the next day. She filled it out but didn't start receiving benefits until last month after contacting a lawyer, she said. Meanwhile, she added water to stretch bean soup and visited a church food pantry to get by.
“I was really upset because that was like income that I was depending on, even though it was just food stamps,” said Carney.
Feronti, her attorney, has 10 clients seeking class-action status, but the case has been on hold as the parties work toward a possible resolution that could compel long-term changes.
The National Center for Law and Economic Justice, also involved in the case, has filed a similar lawsuit in Missouri, but Alaska's situation is “in the extreme,” said Saima Akhtar, an attorney with the center.
The $1.7 million allocated by Dunleavy in February was for the food banks to address urgent needs, including the bulk purchases of goods and distribution of cash cards so people in rural communities can buy groceries on their own and support local stores.
Reinert, with the food bank, said about $800,000 was used to buy staples like oatmeal, pasta, beans, canned fruit and shelf-stable cheese at cheaper prices in Washington state. The goods were then shipped to Alaska for distribution.
Those supplies are beginning to reach the most needy communities, where the cost of groceries in the store are astronomically high due to the logistics of getting them there.
In Bethel, a hub community in southwest Alaska, the Bethel Community Services Foundation provides food to about 350 households a month — nearly six times as many as before the pandemic. Milk at the store costs about $12.50 a gallon, while a 20-pound bag of rice is $62.49 and a 40-pound bag of a discount brand of dog food is $82.49, said Carey Atchak, the foundation's food security coordinator.
That's cheap compared to the Yup'ik village of Kwethluk, a 12-mile (19-kilometer) flight from Bethel, where an 18-pack of eggs can cost almost $17 and a double pack of peanut butter goes for $25.69.
"When the lower 48 experiences these problems, they have workarounds, they have neighbors, they have connections, they have the ability to grow their own food. That's not even an option up here,” Reinert said, using a term common in Alaska for the contiguous U.S. states.
“And so, we’re very, very dependent and reliant on these systems working to keep the lights on and the traffic moving up here.”