State food stamp applications backlog down to 7,000 cases

Alaska’s monthslong delay in disbursing federally funded food stamps to thousands of families still isn’t over — compelling many Alaskans to continue depending on food banks and pantries for emergency food assistance while they wait.

While the state reported that on average, new applications for food stamps and other public assistance benefits filed this month were being processed within 30 days, many Alaskans who applied for benefits as early as last fall were still waiting for their applications to be approved.

“We are definitely seeing improvements in people getting benefits much quicker,” said Cara Durr, chief of advocacy and public policy with the Food Bank of Alaska. “But there’s still a pretty substantial backlog. And we’re still seeing really high levels of need.”

The latest count of the backlog indicated that more than 7,000 applications filed between November and April still haven’t been processed, according to Deb Etheridge, director of the Alaska Division of Public Assistance, which administers federal food aid. That’s down from around 14,000 applications that the state reported were part of the backlog as of February, according to Nick Feronti, an attorney with the Northern Justice Project.

In Alaska, more than 92,000 people rely on food stamp benefits, also referred to as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. About a third are children, and most have incomes below the federal poverty line.

In Wrangell, an average of 122 households each month received food stamps in 2022, almost one in nine households.

At the state’s public assistance division, a team dedicated solely to clearing the backlog has been processing around 500 backlogged applications a week, Etheridge said. That means there’s still months of work left before the backlog is fully cleared, even as the state continues to work on hiring more staff and making other key fixes.

“It’s really disheartening to be at this point and to see that there are still so many people waiting and in need,” said Saima Akhtar, an attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. Akhtar helped bring forward a class-action lawsuit in January, jointly with the Northern Justice Project, on behalf of Alaskans who’d gone months without food aid.

“This is still such a crisis, and the need is so great,” she said.

The only backlogged applications the state was able to process in May came from people who met the state’s narrow criteria for an expedited application: They had to have less than $150 in cash at the time of application, and less than $100 in any other kind of resources, including income or a savings account.

Akhtar said the state’s approach of processing new applications even as it struggles to still work through the backlogged applications has some logic to it, even though it may seem unfair to people who have been waiting for months.

“Clearing front-end applications is what’s going to keep them from adding to the backlog,” Akhtar said.

The state attributes the continued delays largely to an antiquated IT system that processes the applications and won’t be replaced until 2025. It seems there are no quick fixes to clearing the backlog, state officials say.

“If I had a magic wand, I could fix this whole thing,” Etheridge said.

The delays at the public assistance division first surfaced in late December, when multiple Alaska news outlets reported that thousands of Alaskans had already been waiting months to receive SNAP and other public benefits.

Since December, the director of the Division of Public Assistance has been replaced. Ten Alaskans have filed a lawsuit alleging that the delays were a violation of federal law, and the state has received a stern warning from the federal government. The delays have taken a particularly harsh toll on communities in rural Alaska, where food costs are already high and food banks and pantries rare.

The state’s delays have put added pressure on Alaska’s nonprofit sector, which advocates emphasize is not equipped to replace SNAP benefits. In February, an order by Gov. Mike Dunleavy redirected $1.68 million previously earmarked for disaster relief to the Food Bank of Alaska to help bring emergency food to communities in need.

The organization has used those funds to distribute more than 300,000 pounds of food to dozens of communities around Alaska, said Anthony Reinert, director of food programs at the Food Bank of Alaska.

That food has been a welcome relief, Reinert said — for some communities, this was the first time their shelves had been full in months. The funding allowed the nonprofit to distribute food in communities “we’ve never reached before, where aid is needed but doesn’t often flow,” he said. But the aid is still just “a drop in the bucket” compared to the need that is there, he said.

“It’s really, really clear to see that really no amount of food can replace the SNAP program, because the cost and logistics burden on moving actual pounds of food into rural and remote places is so expensive and so time consuming that the efficiency of the SNAP program is unparalleled in getting people the food they need,” Reinert said.

Akhtar and the other attorneys involved in the class-action lawsuit over food stamp delays recently agreed to pause the suit for six months while the state agreed to clear at least 50% of the backlog by the end of October. Akhtar said her team has been meeting with the state monthly to make sure they’re staying on track.

 

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