As previously reported by Juneau public radio station KTOO, the ongoing backlog in processing food stamp applications continues to impact thousands of Alaskans.
The state Division of Public Assistance said in an interview in early March that it’s hired more staff to help address the months-long delay, and is making changes to improve the assistance program. In early February, the federal government took note, and wrote to formally express “grave concerns” at how Alaska was handling SNAP applications. But for now, that is little consolation for Alaskans currently trying to make ends meet without essential food assistance.
Ally, who is going by just her first name in this story to protect her privacy, is a young mother in Homer. She applied in early December to renew her family’s food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP benefits. Like thousands of other Alaskans, she had to scramble to keep food on the table as she waited to hear back from the Division of Public Assistance.
“We’re definitely pinching pennies right now,” Ally said. “We haven’t really been able to — for certain — know what we’re going to have for dinner. We’re pretty down to the bottom of our freezer at this point.”
Ally has a 3-year-old son, and even with her former SNAP benefits and working a full-time job, she said after paying her bills, she only has about $200 left each month for her family’s other expenses.
“These past two months, I’m definitely struggling,” she said. “I’ve had to ask one of my coworkers to borrow money, which I always immediately pay back as soon as I get paid.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state made it easier to receive SNAP benefits. More than 90,000 people used the program in 2022 — that’s one in eight Alaskans. But last summer, the state began requiring people to re-apply, sparking a massive backlog at the state agency.
Ally said it’s been difficult to get through to the Division of Public Assistance to recertify her benefits. On one call, she spent hours on hold, before abruptly getting cut off when the agency’s offices closed for the day.
“The first time it was around noon, and I was like number 200-something in the queue, and the next day I called exactly at 8 a.m., when they open, and I was still number 90-something in the queue,” she said.
This backlog crisis prompted a class action lawsuit against the state at the end of January.
Nick Feronti is an attorney with the Northern Justice Project, one of the law firms leading the case. With people going hungry, he said it was a necessary step to ensure vulnerable Alaskans get their benefits on time, and don’t face the same problem in the future.
Although Feronti said the lawsuit is unlikely to speed up the process for current applicants, it aims to improve the public agency — from ensuring sufficient staffing to language accessibility for people who primarily speak languages other than English.
“That’s something that Alaska is very behind on,” Feronti said. “There are people in Alaska who only speak Yup’ik, and have been speaking that for thousands of years longer than any of us have been here.”
The backlog in food assistance — and the burden of navigating applications, renewing benefits and accessing services — falls unequally on rural communities, Feronti added.
“It’s a terrible problem, because you have people in dispersed rural communities in this state, who really rely on these benefits, who aren’t receiving them,” he said. “I’ve received just heartbreaking calls from people.”
Heidi Hedberg, the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health, which oversees the Division of Public Assistance, said the state is working to improve.
“This is very much all hands on deck,” she said. “We are all working 100% of our time dedicated to addressing the backlog within the Division of Public Assistance.”
Hedberg said since November, 16 technicians have been working exclusively on processing the backlog, and the DPA has made recent hires. They now have more than 100 eligibility workers — but they still have 55 positions they hope to fill.
The division also plans to shift from requiring people to renew their SNAP benefits every six months to once a year — a change the commissioner said the state will be ready to implement later this summer.
She said the state recently finished reprogramming the division’s eligibility information system — so SNAP recertifications from February, March and April could be automatically extended for six months, without people having gaps in assistance.
“So essentially what that did was it created a stopgap, so the backlog for SNAP recertification is contained,” Hedberg said.
But there are still around 5,000 SNAP applications remaining from November, December and January, which Hedberg estimated will take another two months to process. Because of older technology, which was updated at the beginning of the year, the state has to process last fall’s applications manually.
Leigh Dickey is the advocacy director of Alaska Legal Services, an organization providing free legal services for people struggling to access benefits. She said her office has fielded a huge influx of claims about delayed SNAP benefits since last fall, addressing more than 500 cases since September.
“I know the state has been saying that they’ve cleared September cases. That’s not been our experience,” Dickey said. “Just to compare crisis time with non-crisis time: On March 1 of last year, 2022, we had 100 open SNAP cases. And on March 1 of this year, we had 612 open SNAP cases.”
The best course of action for anyone waiting more than 30 days for their applications to be processed is to file a fair hearing request, which people can file themselves. Dickey said everyone who is eligible for benefits has a legal right to get them on time.
“And when the state violates that, then [people] have the right to request a fair hearing. Then the state’s obligated to respond to those fair hearing requests within 10 days,” Dickey said.
She encouraged people to reach out to Alaska Legal Services if they need assistance with the process, or if the state doesn’t respond within the required timeframe. But even finally receiving SNAP benefits that may have been owed for months only helps so much, Dickey said, pointing out that for families who had to spend money on food rather than rent or heat, there really isn’t any redress.
In Homer, after connecting with Alaska Legal Services for help filing a fair hearing request, Ally got her benefits restored in early March. While she said it’s a relief, she still feels stressed, and doesn’t know if she’ll be able to pay back family members she borrowed money from to make it through.
“I’m not ashamed of my struggles,” Ally said. “I grew up homeless, mostly, jumping from homeless shelter to homeless shelter all my childhood. So I’m kind of used to the struggle, if that makes sense. But now I have the child that I have to take care of.”