Providing $1.68 million to four statewide food banks, including $150,000 for the Southeast Alaska Food Bank, and automatically renewing food stamp benefits for people scheduled to reapply for them between February and April are among a series of measures announced Monday to address the months-long backlog in processing public assistance applications.
The announcement by the Alaska Department of Health also mentions several remedies previously announced by department leaders and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, including hiring more permanent state workers as well as temporary private contract employees to handle processing and programming tasks related to food stamp applications.
About $1 million of the immediate food bank funding is for bulk food purchases that will be made by the Food Bank of Alaska in Anchorage and distributed to 150 food pantries statewide, as well as gift cards for individuals in need, Department of Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg said during an online media availability. The $150,000 for Juneau’s largest food bank, plus $420,500 for the Fairbanks Community Food Bank and $100,000 for the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank are intended for direct purchases from local businesses that may be available to residents quicker than the bulk purchases.
“The four of them worked together to divide that funding,” Hedberg said, noting the organizations received the money last Thursday.
According to Southeast Alaska Food Bank director Chris Schapp, the $150,000 his food bank is on track to receive will be used for buying more food to “help satisfy the immediate need from the backlog of SNAP benefits, increase in inflation and still recovering from COVID.”
“We’re primarily using it for those purposes,” Schapp said. “Our focus will be on buying more food, taking care of our members and taking care of the unbelievable amount of people seeking assistance at the two local pantries that we hold every week.”
Regarding the current backlog of public assistance applications, Schapp said the food bank has not seen a decrease in the amount of people needing assistance and the number of demand is still “very high.”
“Back in November, coincidentally around the time that Helping Hands closed their doors, we noticed that the SNAP benefit backlog was also starting to affect people,” Schapp said. “We went from seeing about 255 people a week at both pantries we hold for the public, to over 400, sometimes as many as 450 a week, and that has continued through January and February. I think the lowest numbers we’ve seen are about 380, but most of them are between 400 and 456, which was our record a couple of weeks ago.”
Schapp said that while donations tend to vary from week to week, Southeast Food Bank is still purchasing food from local stores every month and average roughly $10,000 a month in an effort to keep up with the demand between their 30 member agency’s nonprofits that Schapp partners with, along with the two food pantries.
“Last month, we kept track of all the numbers of poundage that came in and out of the food bank,” Schapp said. “We had about 600 pounds more out than we did in and we’re on pace to give out about a half a million pounds of food this year.”
With $1 million of the immediate food bank funding being reserved for bulk purchases that will be distributed by Food Bank of Alaska in Anchorage, Schapp said he’s not certain which 150 of those statewide food pantries will be within Southeast Alaska, however, he is certain that he currently has member agencies in Hoonah and Pelican. Schapp said both will directly benefit from coming in to shop with his food bank, adding that any other Southeast communities interested in partnering with Southeast Food Bank should reach out to him directly.
Schapp said he wanted to thank the Alaska Food Coalition for their involvement in bringing the food bank’s dire need for assistance to light.
“They actually lobbied the Legislature for help with what’s going on with the current climate, for instance dealing with SNAP benefits or dealing with the economy in general,” Schapp said. “It was in large part thanks to them for bringing this to the attention of the Legislature and the governor’s office and Commissioner Hedberg’s office who saw the need to help the state and all of the agencies helping people.”
Statewide scope and solutions
At least 8,000 families have been affected by a backlog in processing food stamp applications dating back to September, with many families going for several months without benefits. Security officers have been hired due to hostile actions by residents against state workers, and Food Bank of Alaska Policy And Advocacy Manager Ron Meehan told the Anchorage Daily News “people are literally starving” in rural areas due to the combined lack of benefits and depletion of supplies from food banks in communities that have them.
Meehan, who participated in Monday’s online media event, said some of the bulk food purchases that will be sent statewide have already been made. He acknowledged there will be a gap until supplies reach communities — and people in need — but in some towns “food pantries had food they were rationing, so they’re able to use more of that knowing more food is coming.”
Distribution of the bulk purchases will be to communities determined to be most in need, which are largely in rural and western Alaska, he said.
The funds were redirected by Gov. Mike Dunleavy from food security programs in the Department of Fish and Game, which can include purposes such as subsistence habitat management. The grant funds are available through a 2021 capital budget appropriation of $6 million to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for Food Security Enhancement Projects. These funds were previously transferred to the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for purchasing shelf-stable food supplies for disaster situations.
The second major immediate remedy was automatically extending eligibility for food stamps — officially known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — for Alaska residents scheduled to reapply for them in February, March and April. Most recipients are required to reapply every six months, but changing that timeline is among the longer-term measures announced.
Hedberg said a similar rollover was used during the COVID-19 pandemic and, with employees still trying to process applications submitted from November until January, the goal is to not to make the backlog longer.
“We are estimating it’s probably going to take two months uninterrupted time to go through that process,” Hedberg said.
Beyond the immediate steps, the health department is changing the renewal process to an annual one.
”Programming is underway to transition the SNAP certification period from six months to 12 months for all participants with a targeted go-live date July 2023,” a health department statement notes. Also, “the department plans to launch an online SNAP application by the end of the calendar year.”
Department officials have also stated for months they are working to hire additional staff, although like many state and private employers they are suffering crucial workforce shortages. The Division of Public Assistance, which operates under the department, states 71 vacant positions have been filled since November and 31 new employees are in training.
“It will take several months for the new staff to be fully trained to support the workflow,” the health department statement notes. “However, because the newly hired staff is trained first to gather information, this support will allow the more experienced eligibility technicians to focus on final determination.”
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com. Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at Jonson.Kuhn@juneauempire.com.