Food banks in Alaska are struggling amid nutrition assistance crisis

Members of an anti-hunger coalition spoke in the State Capitol about the strains their organizations face because of the lack of available SNAP benefits

By: - February 21, 2023 6:00 am
The Food Bank of Alaska sits under a layer of snow in Downtown Anchorage. Staff members from the Food Bank of Alaska spoke to legislators in Juneau on Tuesday about issues they're facing as a result of the SNAP crisis. (Photo by Sophia Carlisle/Alaska Beacon)

The Food Bank of Alaska sits under a layer of snow in Downtown Anchorage. Staff members from the Food Bank of Alaska spoke to legislators in Juneau on Tuesday about issues they’re facing as a result of the SNAP crisis. (Photo by Sophia Carlisle/Alaska Beacon)

Food banks in Alaska are struggling to provide food to people who aren’t receiving food assistance due to a months-long backlog in applications for food stamps. An anti-hunger coalition asked legislators on Tuesday to take action against the problems they face as a result of the crisis.

Speakers from across the state who work together as part of the Alaska Food Coalition spoke in the State Capitol about the strains that their organizations face because of the lack of available Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. The backup of applications for SNAP benefits is a result of many factors. These include the expiration of Alaska’s public health emergency during COVID-19, a lack of employees and technological difficulties. SNAP benefits are a necessity for over 80,000 families across Alaska who coalition members say suffer from hunger on a daily basis. 

The Alaska Food Coalition seeks to find and address the root causes of hunger in the state through advocacy, research and community collaboration. Many food pantries across Alaska are members of the coalition. The Food Bank of Alaska located in Anchorage sponsors the coalition by applying for grants to fund its work. 

LouAnne Carroll-Tysdal, the executive director of the Upper Susitna Food Pantry in Talkeetna, said that many of her former food pantry recipients who no longer needed help have returned for assistance. Why? They haven’t received their SNAP benefits. 

“I am decimating our food supplies. We could use a lot of help,” she said of the food pantry, which is a member of the coalition. 

While many speakers commented on the help that a recently awarded infrastructure grant will be able to provide their organizations, a few speakers still felt that the outlook for their organizations is bleak. Anthony Reinert, director of programs for the Food Bank of Alaska conveyed his worries: “Our message is not super rosy right now. It’s winter outside and unfortunately, in our network, it is gray as well.”

The Food Bank of Alaska secured the state grant, which gave $10 million to support food bank infrastructure. This money was intended to help food banks purchase equipment such as freezers and cargo vans to assist in food distribution.

Reinert emphasized that food banks cannot fill in where SNAP is failing to provide for Alaskans. The Food Bank of Alaska saw a significant decrease in food donations during the pandemic, which put them in a vulnerable position during a period when need is high. Ron Meehan, the policy and advocacy manager for the Food Bank of Alaska, shared similar thoughts in an interview. “The food bank and food pantry system in Alaska, and nationally, was not designed to replace that program [SNAP], and simply doesn’t have the capacity to fill the gap that was created by the backlog,” he said.

As for addressing the SNAP crisis today, Meehan would like to see the state help lessen the burden on food banks and food pantries. While SNAP is funded completely by the federal government, the state assists in administering the program. He said that there were many ways the state could address the backlog of benefits immediately, such as updating outdated technology and implementing broad-based categorical eligibility. Also known as BBCE, this approach would give more leeway to people whose income might be slightly over the minimum amount or whose assets are too high to receive SNAP benefits. Alaska does not currently use BBCE, but many other states do. 

Meehan noted that the implementation of new administrative policies like BBCE could make the SNAP application process more efficient. More efficiency might smooth out the bottleneck that is currently keeping families from receiving their much-needed benefits and give over-burdened food banks and food pantries a break. 

“We want to make sure that the things that we’re doing are not just going to get us through this current backlog, and that’s not the only focus, but the mechanisms that are put in place are looking at the long-term to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Meehan said.

The SNAP crisis and subsequent pressure on food banks come at a time when Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Legislature are looking to improve Alaska’s food security and independence. A task force appointed by the governor to address these problems is finishing its work, while a new legislative task force is forming. This new task force will continue on with the work established by the former group, however, it is unclear if it will address the food stamp crisis. 

But Meehan said he is hopeful about the new legislative task force.

“It really stands to substantially benefit all Alaskans, and I think that it is enormously useful moving forward in hoping to prevent situations like we see today, which very much is a crisis,” Meehan said.

Because at the end of the day, families are struggling, food banks are struggling, and the problem will continue to worsen without intervention. Magen James, the SNAP outreach manager for the Food Bank of Alaska, closed her part of the presentation on a somber note: “Our clients are hungry, they’re angry, they’re sad, and they’re heartbroken that they can’t feed their children.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the infrastructure grant was a state grant and to correct the spelling of LouAnne Carroll-Tysdal’s name. 


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