The wait for food stamps in Alaska is improving, but applicants still face long delays

Cans on shelves in a grocery store
IGA Foodland grocery store in Juneau on Dec. 20, 2022 (Paige Sparks/KTOO)

Alaska’s food assistance program has processed the oldest applications from a backlog plaguing the state for more than a year, but many applicants still have to wait for up to three months to receive benefits.

The state Division of Public Assistance administers the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which served about 90,000 Alaskans last year, about 12% of the state’s population. 

In April 2023, when the backlog was at its worst, thousands were waiting for help buying food, some for as long as eight months. State officials blamed a cyberattack and an influx of paperwork when its COVID-19 public health emergency ended but some state workers pointed to chronic understaffing.

Public Assistance Director Deb Etheridge said the division has hired more people to process applications. She said the federal Food and Nutrition Service that oversees the program wanted the state to prioritize the oldest applications and renewals.

“We had some guidance from FNS where they really strongly recommended that we focus on the original backlog, because some of those cases were very old,” Etheridge said. “So we did. We attacked. We got rid of the old backlog on Sept. 1, and then that has unfortunately created sort of a newer backlog.”

Etheridge said the current processing wait is about three months. But she said people with very low income or assets who qualify for an expedited application will have access to benefits without having to wait for the department to catch up.

Etheridge said applications in what she calls the “new backlog” are easier to process, because the applicants’ information is more often up-to-date. People are less likely to have moved or changed jobs in the time they’ve been waiting. And she said there are now two teams managing applications and renewals: One is working on the current paperwork, and the other is dedicated to the backlog.

Etheridge would not offer a guess on how long it might take to get through all the 8,500 pending applications and renewals, but she said the backlog team is processing about 500 cases per week.

“We’re just really laser focused on getting through our backlog,” Etheridge said. “And we’re committed to problem solving so we’re not in this situation again.”

Etheridge said the department is creating an online application for SNAP, which they plan to start using in December. She thinks that will help make applications easier to process because people will be less likely to skip required fields in an online form. The department also plans to create an online client portal to manage applications which Etheridge said eventually will help make back-and-forth communication more transparent.

RELATED: Alaska health department changes Medicaid renewal process to keep thousands covered

Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her Read more about Rachel here.

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