The State of Alaska has extended the deadline for families to enroll in a new federal program that will provide up to $458 per eligible child to help pay for groceries.
Tens of thousands of school-aged children in Alaska qualify for the pandemic-EBT program. Families now have until the end of September to enroll in the benefits after a troubled rollout of the program left some Alaskans unaware that the new funds even existed.
“It was becoming apparent that many people in communities around Alaska had not received the notice yet,” said Shawnda O’Brien, the director of Alaska’s Division of Public Assistance. “And so, you know, the right thing to do was to extend the deadline.”
A number of issues and delays plagued the beginning of the P-EBT program in Alaska.
O’Brien said her division had to wait on data from the state education department this summer. Then a computer system crashed. She said the division didn’t have the IT resources to set up an online form, so it mailed paper ones to about 31,000 Alaskans. The Food Bank of Alaska reports the letters were mailed to most families on Aug. 20 — 11 days before the original deadline.
Those Alaskans then had to fill out the forms and mail them back. There were postal delays, O’Brien said. Some Alaskans said they never got a form. Some people thought the program was a scam.
“I think all of us have experienced that mail delay issue, whether you’re in Juneau or Anchorage or anywhere else in the state,” O’Brien said. “It’s considerably more challenging the further away you are from main hubs.”
The Food Bank of Alaska has now stepped in to provide an electronic form, plus a text message and call-in service to help people enroll.
Food Bank of Alaska spokeswoman Cara Durr said the new program is meant to reimburse families for their added food expenses when the coronavirus forced schools to suddenly close this spring. Durr said the funds come at a good time.
“We know that many families are still struggling with loss of jobs or cut hours. And so I think it’s timely, and it’s going to be a really important resource to help families put food on the table,” Durr said.
The state estimates about 44,000 Alaska children qualify for the program, according to O’Brien.
Durr said families are eligible if their children received free or reduced-price meals at school this spring or if they went to a school with a free lunch program.
Durr and O’Brien encouraged Alaskans to fill out the forms as soon as possible.
“The sooner that people can get the form back the better we can manage that workload,” O’Brien said.
By Monday, Durr said, the Food Bank had already received about 1,000 voicemails and 8,000 text inquiries about the program.