Michael Carter selects chips from a large box while Kalie Purkey wheels their 1-year-old daughter, Oaklynn Carter, along the row of tables at the Southeast Alaska Food Bank’s weekly food pantry on Thursday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Michael Carter selects chips from a large box while Kalie Purkey wheels their 1-year-old daughter, Oaklynn Carter, along the row of tables at the Southeast Alaska Food Bank’s weekly food pantry on Thursday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

‘New normal’ is long waits for SNAP benefits and long lines at food pantries

Juneau residents cite variety of reasons for being part of backlog of more than 12,000 applicants.

Michael Carter and Kalie Purkey said they applied for food stamps in March, a few months after the birth of their daughter, but it wasn’t until last month they were rejected due to submitting a lack of required information. They’ve since reapplied, but expect it may be the same length of time before getting another response.

“They just said ‘we’re very backed up,’” Carter said Thursday, as the trio were the first among dozens of people in line Thursday afternoon at the Southeast Alaska Food Bank’s weekly food pantry. “We had no timeframe.”

The family is among a backlog of more than 12,000 households applying for or trying to renew Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, the Alaska Division of Public Assistance said late last week. The backlog is occurring after a backlog that started in August of 2022 reached a peak of 14,000 before reportedly being resolved in September, only to surge again due to what the division called staffing and technical problems.

[SNAP benefits backlog surges past 12,000 applicants again due to technical, staffing woes]

A long line of people wait their turn during the Southeast Alaska Food Bank’s weekly food pantry on Thursday. Staff at the food bank say such lines are a “new normal” due to the season, issues with people getting public assistance and other factors. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A long line of people wait their turn during the Southeast Alaska Food Bank’s weekly food pantry on Thursday. Staff at the food bank say such lines are a “new normal” due to the season, issues with people getting public assistance and other factors. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Carter said his family is making ends meet with his job, visiting the food bank weekly and getting help from a church that makes weekly food deliveries. He said the line that stretched beyond the length of the food bank’s warehouse on Thursday is typical these days, so his family left their Douglas home more than an hour before the scheduled opening to ensure a good spot.

“It’s usually like this,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a little less, but for the most part people get here really early.”

Numerous other people interviewed at two local food pantries this week described various circumstances of need and experiences with the public assistance division, but all shared a common trait: none were receiving their SNAP benefits — and in some cases other assistance from the division they applied for.

Nicholas Lekanof, who said he worked as a tour guide at the Goldbelt Tram until the end of the tourism season and is now a bell ringer for The Salvation Army, was among the people picking up bags of groceries Tuesday at the weekly food pantry hosted by Resurrection Lutheran Church. He said he applied for recertification of his SNAP benefits six months ago and “my research just got lost in the mix.”

“And so now I just reapplied and it could be three months, it could be six months,” he said.

Sylvia Geraghty helps a customer during the weekly food pantry at Resurrection Lutheran Church on Tuesday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Sylvia Geraghty helps a customer during the weekly food pantry at Resurrection Lutheran Church on Tuesday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

One oddity, Lekanof said, is he has family members in Anchorage who endured a five-month wait for SNAP benefits, only to receive what he called an “overabundance” of more than $1,000 in benefits retroactively.

“For people that aren’t used to having food security that leaves the door open for people selling their food stamps,” he said. “That’s what I think is a horrible, horrible thing.”

Stephanie Rose, waiting in line at the food bank Thursday, said she experienced delays during last year’s backlog when it took six months for her application to be approved, and is expecting the same now after reapplying four months ago.

“They’re just saying they’re just backed up, the same thing like last year,” she said. “There’s always an excuse when you call.”

While the food bank offers much-needed assistance, making ends meet is a struggle because food prices are continuing to increase quickly, Rose said.

Delays with other benefits such as Medicaid and senior benefits are experiencing backlogs due to problems at the public assistance division, according to officials at the Alaska Department of Health that oversees the division. For Ian Clarke, standing near the back of the line at the food bank Thursday, it was trying to apply for more than one form of assistance — SNAP and Medicaid — that resulted in both getting caught in the backlog

“They seem to overlap and interchange my dates,” he said. “And so when I had to recertify for Medicaid it just got washed out in the system, like it overloads.”

Shirley Sakaye, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, stated in an email earlier this week efforts to reduce the current backlog are ongoing, including an online SNAP application that automates some processes scheduled to debut at the end of the month. Senior staff have also been assigned to some of the processing work and the department is trying to rehire some former eligibility technicians for temporary assistance.

A faster solution during the previous backlog occurred when Gov. Mike Dunleavy in February redirected $1.68 million originally intended as disaster relief to address the SNAP shortage by purchasing and delivering bulk food to communities throughout the state, said Jeremiah Beedle, the Southeast Alaska Food Bank’s board chair. A total of $150,000 went to the local food bank, which serves 30 member agencies in Juneau and Southeast, in addition to the food pantry providing food directly to people.

Before the aid came in the food bank was running short of food to provide to members, Beedle said. But the funds allowed them to purchase an immense amount of food at low bulk prices, which was further aided when Alaska Marine Lines waived its shipping fees.

Beedle said he believes the state public assistance division is trying to resolve the backlog, but practically speaking another round of emergency funding is the better short-term fix.

“The changes (at the public assistance division) they’re trying to implement, I don’t know that they have the proper manpower to actually put the stuff into play,” he said. “So if there was some emergency funding that was allowed to do similar to what happened last year I know that would make a huge difference for us here and allow us to continue to meet the increased needs that we’re seeing.”

Beedle said that by the end of Thursday’s food pantry about 400 people had come by to pick up groceries. He said that’s consistent with recent weeks and a continuing increase in demand “even after the drastic increases we saw last year.”

“I think it’s more of a new normal,” he said. “It’s certainly above — way above — where we’ve been in the past.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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