In a Wendler Middle School classroom that is normally reserved for lunch detention, Kailey Otten walked through an assortment of food laid out on multiple desks.
“I would say a lot of canned vegetables, and spaghetti sauce and noodles is probably the thing we’ve gotten the most of,” said Otten, a social work intern at the Anchorage school. “Lots of mac and cheese.”
Otten, along with Wendler teachers and staff, have collected the donated food to give to students and their families. They’re trying to fill a serious need as the state continues to flail under a massive backlog of food stamp applications.
Their effort started a few weeks ago, Otten said, when a child told his teacher that his family was having trouble getting food.
“Through that initial disclosure, we kind of realized that this was a much bigger issue that was facing families,” she said. “And it was directly related to the struggles at the state level with SNAP benefits for families.”
The issues with the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, were first flagged in late December, when public radio station KTOO in Juneau highlighted a monthslong backlog of thousands of food stamp applications.
Reasons for the backlog have been varied, with high-level officials blaming cyber attacks and a large influx of paperwork stemming from the pandemic. Meanwhile, state workers say chronic understaffing and workforce cuts have plagued the public assistance system for years.
The state official in charge of the program resigned, and the state faces a lawsuit that claims the state subjected thousands of families to ongoing hunger. Gov. Mike Dunleavy addressed the backlog in an appearance on Talk of Alaska last week.
“It’s an awful thing,” Dunleavy said. “We all admit that. And on behalf of Alaska, I apologize to the folks that are impacted because this is an important issue.
When Wendler principal Marcus Wilson found out about one student’s family struggling to get food, he decided to send out a message to all Wendler families to see if it was a bigger issue.
“I would say within the first five minutes, we had probably about 15-18 responses back, that quick,” Wilson said.
Otten said, in total, roughly four dozen families have reached out saying they were impacted by the state’s backlog.
She wanted to help, so she reached out to Clear Water Church, a school community partner.
“I reached out to them and said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in collecting some food for some families because we know that a lot of kids are hungry right now,’” Otten said. “And ended up getting a really large donation, and we’ve gotten a couple follow-up donations, and have had a really positive response from families.”
Families impacted by the delay in state benefits can pick up the food from the school or, in some cases, school staff brought the food directly to homes. Wilson said, when he made the deliveries, he learned about families’ various struggles.
“One family was just dealing with COVID with the whole family at home, and weren’t able to go out and buy groceries because everybody was pretty sick,” he said. “Another family, the main breadwinner in the home was injured, so they were really hurting.”
Wilson said he understands that for some families, it’s not easy to ask for help, and they’ve been so gracious and thankful for the food.
Otten agreed that the feedback has been positive, but said the school’s food drive is not a sustainable solution to families’ hunger. The real solution should come from the state.
“We shouldn’t need to be collecting food for families,” she said. “This shouldn’t be an issue that’s happening.”
State health officials did not respond to questions about the current SNAP backlog for this story. However, they said in late January that they’d caught up on backlogs through October.
In his Talk of Alaska appearance, Dunleavy said he thinks the problem could be solved by updating the state software that handles the application requests as well as by hiring enough staff.
“We just have to make sure that going forward we have the personnel in place to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” the governor said.
While families wait on benefits to go through, Otten said, she’s grateful for how the community has stepped up in the wake of the state’s failure.
“As much as it has been heartbreaking to see how many families have been impacted, it’s also been really heartwarming to see the way that community has just stepped up and immediately responded to a request,” Otten said.
For families whose kids don’t go to Wendler, officials say they should try to get in contact with their school’s community partners.
Dora Wilson is community outreach manager for the IBEW Local 1547 union, a community partner with Wendler that provided gift cards to aid with the food drive. She’s also a member of the Anchorage School Board.
“The school community is really good about connecting them to resources, whether they have resources on hand or they have resources that are accessible to their families,” she said. “So I think they should always use their school as a resource to get that information.”
There are additional options in Anchorage for families experiencing food insecurity, including the Food Bank of Alaska and Bean’s Cafe.