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Alaska's SNAP backlog affects those in need on the peninsula

Holiday food
Sabine Poux

After the COVID-19 federal health emergency ended last year, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service reinstated an interview requirement for every SNAP application and recertification, leading to a backlog in the application processing. In December, the issue affected more than 12,000 Alaskans, over 10% of the state’s SNAP recipients.

The state’s director of public assistance says the backlog is caused by a number of factors, from computer system upgrades to short staffing. To speed up the application process, the state has paused the interview requirement, which is out of compliance with federal regulations.

According to a report from the Alaska Beacon, the number of people affected by the SNAP backlog doubled between August and November of last year. Kenai Peninsula Food Bank Executive Director Greg Meyer says the food bank is nearing pandemic levels of food distribution. He credits the estimated 25% increase in food distribution since late last summer to lingering inflation, supply chain issues and the SNAP backlog.

“We’re building up our reserve a little bit, at one point it had taken us to maybe two or three days of reserve in the building," Meyer said." We have no definitive way to say that’s exactly it, but we’re hearing that story over and over again, the cost of food, the cost of fuel and waiting for their SNAP to be approved.” 

Meyer says nearly half of the food bank’s recipients were at one point affected by the backlog. Soldotna’s Randy Leach is a disabled senior who filled out his SNAP application in September. He says he didn’t receive his benefits until the end of January.

“I don’t blame the people at the front desk, I really don’t," Leach said. "I’m not sure who it is that needs to get off the stick to do the job. I know they’re short-handed, and I feel sorry for a lot of people who need it, that really need it, worse than me.”

In addition to a delay in receiving his SNAP benefits, Leach says he’s had similar issues with other disability assistance programs, including Alaska’s Adult Public Assistance, or APA. Because of a delay in APA benefits, Leach didn’t have enough money in his bank account to pay his credit card bills or make this month’s house payment on time.

Around the same time, his cat developed an inoperable tumor. Leach says he couldn’t afford to pay his vet bill and had to watch his cat suffer instead of putting her down.

“And she went with the big bill I couldn’t pay because the state was messing with my food stamps, senior benefits, APA and everything else," he said. "I couldn’t pay my water and sewer, my electric, my gas and everything. It’s been hard.”

“From what we’re hearing, it’s a lot,” Meyer said. “We’re hearing that from folks every day, that they’re still waiting on that.”

Because of supply chain issues, the Soldotna-based food pantry has seen a decrease in donations from area grocery stores. Last February, Gov. Mike Dunleavy redirected $1.7 million from an unutilized state program to aid food pantries across the state. The move came after a similar backlog in the state’s SNAP application process.

Meyer says the redirected funds supplied the food bank with just enough resources to get by.

“We’re trying to be that voice to hear and encourage people to speak out, and we’re trying to get them where they need to be," he said. "It’s just one of those situations with the fuel and the food, all these things happened at once, and it was just more than you can manage easily.” 

Members of the food bank met with legislators in Juneau last week to discuss SNAP issues at the annual Alaska Food Coalition meeting.

The Kenai Peninsula Food Bank provides food assistance for 40 to 60 households each day. The organization also has 46 distribution sites across the peninsula.

Hunter Morrison is a news reporter at KDLL