Alaska lawmaker says systemic changes to food stamps program will reduce backlog, save money

a credit card-style Alaska Quest Card on fresh produce
Alaska Quest cards can be used to buy local produce with SNAP benefits. Thousands of Alaskans effectively lost their food benefits for months at a time last year because of paperwork processing problems at a state agency. (Courtesy of Alaska Department of Health)

The Alaska Beacon reports that state lawmakers have proposed a pair of bills to make systemic changes to the way the state’s food stamp program processes applications and could expand access.

The federal government funds the benefits, also known as SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But the state’s Division of Public Assistance is responsible for administering it. Since late 2022, paperwork processing failures at the agency left thousands of vulnerable Alaskans without food aid for months at a time.

Alaska Public Media’s Jeremy Hsieh talked with Beacon reporter Claire Stremple,  who started breaking stories back in December of 2022 about the problems, on Tuesday for more about the issue. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jeremy Hsieh: First off, what’s the latest on the backlog itself? 

Claire Stremple: The backlog was under 1,000 applications last week. So that’s really good news. It’s down from more than 12,000 last fall. So the state had worked down last winter’s backlog of about 15,000, but then began racking up another one as it worked through its latest applications. 

JH: What actually defines the backlog? Is it, like, past a certain amount of time in processing? 

CS: The state has a month to process an application. And anything over that is an overdue or a not-timely application. At the height of the backlog, some Alaskans were waiting 10 months.

JH: So what steps have state officials proposed to fix this lately? 

CS: Well, the latest, the governor’s budget includes $8.8 million for 30 new full-time staff in the Division of Public Assistance. And another $5 million to support food security and food banks. Food bank staff will tell you that they’re no substitute for SNAP. But they are really trying to keep up with demand as so many people have gone without food aid in the last year. 

JH: I see. So if someone isn’t getting their food benefits timely, then a lot of them are going to end up going to a food bank as like, another sort of last resort. 

CS: Exactly. If they, after they pay rent and pay for heat, don’t have enough money for all the food they need, they may end up at a food bank. 

There’s also a pair of bills from Rep. Genevieve Mina, a Democrat from Anchorage, and Sen. Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, that would expand eligibility for the SNAP program. So Alaska is one of only nine states that doesn’t use a thing called “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which means that it would just allow people who qualify for certain other benefits to automatically qualify for SNAP. The intent is that it would cut down on paperwork that’s been moving so slowly on the state side. And it would also increase the amount of money Alaskans could make and save and still qualify. 

And the intent there is to increase who qualifies and it’s important after so many people have gone into debt, as they waited months for food stamps and they’re really trying to recover. Also, inflation is high right now, so the amount of money people were making a year ago is not going as far as it was any longer.

JH: And the savings piece – meaning, you’ve got some eligibility requirements, and if you end up, I don’t know, just being very conservative with your money, you might cross some threshold and no longer be eligible for benefits? 

CS: Yes. Off the top of my head, I think it’s about $2,700 that you’re allowed to have in savings. But if you exceed that amount, if you have $3,000 in savings? You no longer qualify for SNAP benefits. And so by getting rid of that barrier, they’re saying well, this will allow Alaskans to have savings and kind of work themselves out of the situation where they need food stamps.

So the intent is to really allow people to save, and still be getting benefits, instead of kind of dropping off what’s called a “benefits cliff.” 

JH: Sen. Cathy Giessel, the Republican you mentioned from Anchorage, is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill. And she had brought up at a committee meeting recently, this about up the cost of the implementing this bill:

Cathy Giessel: “It’s less than $300,000 a year. But, it will serve a huge population of our state. And as I said before, the state is already appropriating millions … $4.5 million in the next two fiscal years, to make up for the SNAP problems that we’ve had. So we actually save money.” 

JH: It sounds, really like a straightforward, good government thing. Has there been any pushback on these bills?  

CS: The House bill was introduced last year. It’s facing headwinds because Rep. Mina is not part of the House Majority. So her bill hasn’t been scheduled to be taken up by committee, again, without which it can’t proceed. 

On the Senate side, there were some good questions when it was heard in Health and Social Services last week. I haven’t heard any strong criticisms yet. 

JH: And then, I know there was a lawsuit by a nonprofit called the Northern Justice Project that was moving along related to these long processing times. Any update on what’s going with that lawsuit? 

CS: Alaskans are suing Commissioner Heidi Hedberg as the leader of the Department of Health for the department’s failings. And the state has asked for what’s called a stay on that lawsuit. They get to delay the proceedings. And the proceedings have been delayed for a year. The plaintiffs agreed that they’d do that. The state had pledged to cut down on the backlog and reopen some public assistance offices and hire contractors, among other things. But now, those days are over. And the proceedings are going to continue. 

The plaintiffs are just suing to get their SNAP benefits. So, they’re not looking for cash awards or damages or anything like that – this is a way the justice system can be used to get the government to deliver on its responsibilities. So now that that second flare of crisis-level backlog has happened, the courts have said that things really need to move forward.

For more of Claire Stremple’s reporting, go to

Jeremy Hsieh covers Anchorage with an emphasis on housing, homelessness, infrastructure and development. Reach him at or 907-550-8428. Read more about Jeremy here.

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