Information about SNAP benefit amounts is posted on a wall at the Alaska Division of Public Assistance’s Kenai office on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Information about SNAP benefit amounts is posted on a wall at the Alaska Division of Public Assistance’s Kenai office on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Food bank sees demand jump amid SNAP benefit backlog

About 9.5% of the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s roughly 22,800 households received SNAP benefits in 2021

As the State of Alaska works to reconcile a monthslong backlog in applications for food stamps, the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank is picking up the slack for local residents.

The Anchorage Daily News first reported in late December that thousands of Alaskans had not received their Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits. In the time since, a group of Alaskans has filed a lawsuit alleging that the state failed to provide SNAP benefits within the time required by federal law and, as reported by the Anchorage Daily News, at least three residents have been hospitalized due to malnutrition.

As of January 2023, more than 270,000 Alaskans receive some sort of public assistance, according to the Alaska Department of Health. Of those, more than 32,000 receive SNAP benefits.

About 9.5% of the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s roughly 22,800 households received SNAP benefits in 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey five-year estimate. Of those, roughly one in four households — 25.4% — had children under 18 years old.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Food Bank Executive Director Greg Meyer told the Clarion last week that demand for services has gone up over the course of the state backlog. On average, Meyer said they’ve been serving three new households per day at the food bank, not counting people who use services at one of the peninsula’s food pantries, or receive assistance through one of the food bank’s approximate 70 distribution points. The number of households the food bank serves on a daily basis currently averages between 45 and 50.

“That, I would say for this time of year, is close to double,” Meyer said, adding that number of people patronizing the food bank diner is up between 25 to 30%.

Demand also tends to pick up during the summer, when seasonal workers move to the peninsula.

“What we’ve been hearing from people consistently, is that they are not getting their SNAP benefits, and they basically don’t have food,” Meyer said. “I mean, we’ve had folks that are literally saying, ‘We’re out of food.’”

‘Imperfect storm’

Meyer said the circumstances that led to Alaska’s current SNAP backlog was something of an “imperfect storm.”

Meyer traveled to Juneau in February to talk with lawmakers about food security in Alaska. Meyer said he was told during that trip that the department was processing applications from October 2022.

The Alaska Senate Finance Committee last week held a hearing during which Alaska Department of Health Commissioner Designee Heidi Hedberg, Deputy Commissioner Emily Ricci and Assistant Commissioner Josie Stern presented about the state’s current SNAP backlog. During that hearing, Hedberg said the state’s current backlog was caused by the culmination of multiple factors.

The COVID-19 pandemic and a cyberattack against the department affected planned upgrades to the state’s information technology system, which Hedberg said was unable to accommodate an expansion of new federal relief programs. As a result, the department needed to process applications manually while department staff were also trying to respond to the pandemic.

That is all in addition to staffing shortages — the Division of Public Assistance has filled 71 positions since November 2022 — and a generally clunky department workflow.

“We really are in a crisis,” Hedberg told the committee. “We are (in) crisis management and we are triaging right now.”

The state’s current backlog, she said, includes recertifications for November, December and January, totaling around 5,000 recertifications. The department has a “dedicated team” addressing the backlog that Hedberg estimates will take two months to be processed manually.

“We are doing everything that we can to process them as quickly as we can,” Hedberg told committee members. “It takes about an average of one hour to process one of those SNAP applications.”

During his own trip to Juneau, where he and a coalition of others spoke with lawmakers about food security in Alaska, Meyer said they advocated for upgrades to the Division of Public Assistance’s IT software, increasing division staff and streamlining the process for people to receive benefits.

So far, Meyer said the food bank has been able to keep up with the uptick in demand. In the last quarter of 2022 the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank put out 78,000 more pounds of food than it took in.

“We definitely … couldn’t have some kind of a major emergency that involved a lot of food right now, because we have pulled out a lot of our excess,” Meyer said.

A difficult process

It is to the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank that people like Astrea “Red” Piersee are directing those experiencing trouble with their SNAP benefits. Piersee is an administrative assistant at the Kenai Senior Center and is responsible for helping local seniors complete their application for benefits and then submitting the application to the Division of Public Assistance.

Piersee said Friday that she’s worked with seniors on the Kenai Peninsula for 20 years and has never seen the benefits process as difficult as it is now. She helped a senior last October, for example, reapply for SNAP benefits. That application, on Friday, was still “pending.”

“(The Division of Public Assistance) actually told her they were so far behind that she should just fill out a new application and submit it,” Piersee said. “Instead of continuing what we were doing, just start over again.”

Piersee said the applicant “barely has enough to cover” bills, so the senior center has been providing her with home-delivered meals and a monthly box of commodities.

From the state, Piersee said better communication between applicants and a case manager is key. Benefit coordinators are willing to put in the legwork to get applications completed and submitted, but having a point of contact for specific cases is also needed.

“I can completely understand being short staffed,” Piersee said. “Since COVID, none of us knew what to expect. We’re all experiencing shortages; we’re doing the best that we can. But people are falling through the cracks. We want to continue to support them, we just need the tools to be able to do it.”

A way forward

The Alaska Department of Health announced last week a variety of initiatives to provide relief to SNAP recipients, identified as either short-term, 90-day or permanent solutions. Included as a short-term relief is $1.68 million in additional funding for the Fairbanks Community Food Bank, the Food Bank of Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank and the Southeast Alaska Food Bank.

Meyer said, of the $1.68 million announced by the state last week, he expects to receive between $350,000 and $400,000 for the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, to be spent on filling the shelves of the food bank.

Within the next 90 days, the department said it will complete programming to automatically roll over benefits for Alaskans whose benefits were scheduled to be redetermined in February, March and April 2023. While the department works to fill vacant staff positions, the Division of Public Assistance has a temporary contract to increase staff at the state’s virtual contact center.

Permanent solutions the state plans to implement include a $54 million addition to Alaska’s capital budget to modernize the Division of Public Assistance’s existing information technology system and to launch an online SNAP application by the end of 2023. That is in addition to transitioning the SNAP certification period from six months to 12 months.

More information about SNAP benefits in Alaska can be found on the Division of Public Assistance website at health.alaska.gov. The Kenai Peninsula Food bank is located at 33955 Community College Drive in Soldotna.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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